In 1974, a film version of Jack Good’s “Othello”-inspired rock opera “Catch My Soul” opened in New York City and was quickly slaughtered by the snarky local critics. Big city audiences stayed away from the film and its distributor (Cinerama Releasing) didn’t bother promoting the work with any great vigor. A year later, the film re-emerged in the Dixie drive-in circuit under the title “Santa Fe Satan” before it disappeared. “Catch My Soul” vanished so rapidly that no 35mm print was known to survive until a battered copy turned up in 2003 at a North Carolina farm.
Now, after being unavailable for four decades, “Catch My Soul” has returned via a new Blu-ray and DVD release by the indie Etiquette Pictures, which created a 2k restoration from the original 35mm negative, (20th Century Fox had the negative for years, but made no effort to rescue the work.) Viewed today, it is difficult to understand why “Catch My Soul” was so poorly received in its initial release – the production offers a bold and audacious force of imagination that rarely exists in film musicals of any era.
Helmed by actor Patrick McGoohan in his only film directing work, “Catch My Soul” transplants Othello to a 1967 New Mexico religious commune, where the gentle marriage of the pastor Othello (folk singer Richie Havens) and his devoted disciple Desdemona (Season Hubley) is fatally disrupted by the disreputable hippies Iago (Lance LeGault) and Emilia (Susan Tyrell). In this work, Michael Cassio (swamp rock star Tony Joe White) is the deacon in Othello’s commune. The rest of Shakespeare’s text is jettisoned in favor of an intense drama involving Iago’s efforts to use an imaginary affair between Cassio and Desdemona as the tool to create Othello’s self-destruction.
McGoohan overcame an unusually low budget ($750,000) by placing most of the score – primarily solos by Havens and LeGault – on the soundtrack, with the performers isolated against the challenging Southwestern terrain, thus framing their tight inner conflicts amid the vastness of a hostile world. When songs are performed on-screen, they are done live with minimal instrumental backing, thus creating a sense of musical intimacy (most notably in Havens’ acoustic guitar rendition of “Open Our Eyes” following the wedding of Othello to Desdemona).
The film is blessed with two sequences that are truly jaw-dropping with their audacity. The first is the extended wedding celebration, which evolves slowly from a placid meditation of the union of Othello and Desdemona into a bacchanalia centered on the wine-fueled vocalizing of White’s Cassio, with rock-flavored input from the duo of Bonnie and Delaney Bramlett. It is an astonishing orgy of music, dance, raucous emotionalism and percolating malice – and its power is a tribute to the collaborative excellence of McGoohan’s direction, Conrad Hall’s bold cinematography and Richard A. Harris’ inventive editing.
The second segment of worth takes place inside Iago’s vehicle of choice: a bus with black-painted windows that houses a stark white interior. Tyrell’s Emilia (presented here as a happy accomplice to Iago’s trickery) engages the camera in a head-on hedonistic show-stopper titled “Tickle His Fancy.” Tyrell vamps a comic eroticism that is both scintillating and hilarious – perhaps she is a bit too over-the-top, as her number is the only comic interlude and its appearance in the film’s latter stretch briefly blunts the impact of the dramatic build-up to Othello’s cruel fate.
For the dialogue, the film offers a mix of then-contemporary slang with large slices of the original Shakespearean text. The effect is disconcerting at first, but the cast pulls it off – especially Havens, whose initial sincerity and gentleness makes Othello’s implosion especially dramatic.
The film is, admittedly, not perfect – the liberal reworking of the Shakespeare tragedy causes Othello’s seething jealousy to emerge too abruptly, and placing a surplus amount of music in the first part of the film creates an uneven balance between song and drama. But even with these flaws, “Catch My Soul” is so refreshingly unusual that it becomes a hypnotically invigorating experience. The film’s return after being gone for too many years is champagne-worthy — and, with luck, a new generation of film lovers will experience and champion this grand experimental endeavor.