Glee The 3-D Concert Film: The Church of Latter-day Songs

The McKinley High glee club has accrued the odor, say the incense, of a secular religion

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Adam Rose / 20th Century Fox

A scene from Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

In the winter and spring, the Meadowlands Izod Center, just across the river from New York City, houses the hapless New Jersey Nets; but for two days in June it served as the shrine for Glee. Thousands of the faithful have made their Mecca trek for an in-person peek at the stars of the hit Fox series. “Oh, Artie!”, they apostrophize about the kid in the wheelchair. They kneel before the niche of Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris), she of the airhead aphorisms, and they curtsey to Kurt (Chris Colfer), the de-closeted gay teen with the angelic countertenor. As for Rachel (Lea Michele), all right, she’s kind of a pain — but God, what glorious Broadway pipes!

(PHOTOS: Glee‘s Broadway roots)

Glee began, in September 2009, as a TV show about the glee club kids at William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio. Then, as this comedy-drama-musical bucked prime-time trends, became a solid hit and turned its misfit teens into role models, executive producer Ryan Murphy and his team also took on a mission: propagandizing for Otherness, for kids who are gay, fat, disabled, troubled, mentally impaired or just plain lonely. The message surely gives hope to outcast kids, and functions as a sharp skin-bracer to complacent adult; but the series, once an enclave for show tunes and classic pop, now takes itself so seriously that it could be called The Church of Latter-Day Songs.

On its pretty-young-thing face, Glee 3D is your basic concert film for teens, following the improvised marketing devices for Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers and Justin Bieber. Director Kevin Tancharoen — who did Fame‘s big-screen remake and such classic TV doc-schlock as Britney Spears: Live from Miami and The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search for the Next Doll — parades the cast through a score of numbers previously seen on the show and intersperses the numbers with backstage footage and fan effusions. But the film also serves as the clearest statement of Glee‘s sacred mission. Through it, we can see how the entire multimedia phenomenon — the show, the albums, the iTunes hits, the recent concert tour and now this movie — has accrued the odor, say the incense, of a secular religion. Count the similarities:

1. The Gods. They’re You, the series tells its teen fans, but sexier, more articulate and iconic. (Also older: Colfer is the only actor of the core dozen “high-schoolers” who’s not at least 25 this year; the guys who play Finn, Puck and Mike are pushing 30.) Glee being an ensemble show, it gives the audience all manner of eccentric, often warring gods to choose from. The religion is pantheistic, with more deities than Buddhism.

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2. The Faithful. True, every concert film is a gathering of the faithful, filled with reaction shots of smiling or weeping audience members, those faces gazing up at the celebrant in beatific awe. But Gleeks radiate a fervor of born-again intensity. Outside the Izod before the shows, the acolytes wear votive costumes, transfigure themselves with Glee spray-on facial tattoos — Ash Wednesday soot in DayGlo colors — and speak in hushed rapture of their particular living-room gods.

3. The Gospel. In the Church of Glee, services are held not on Sunday or Saturday or Friday, but Tuesday nights at 8. And whereas the Catholic Mass synopsizes the same story each week — of Jesus’ power to transform himself into an incredible, edible God — Glee has an ever-expanding scripture, providing 24 new parables a year.

4. The Hymns. The Catholics’ traditional High Mass was a musical in Latin. Al Jolson’s Jazz Singer was a cantor gone secular. Half of all R&B divas and many a rockabilly rebel first wailed in a church choir. But the songs of the established churches are often centuries old; the Church of Glee turns Broadway melodies and new hits into instant hymns. The Jay Z-Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” get Glee‘s liturgical makeover, as does Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” Rachel and Kurt channel those gods of gaydom, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, in a medley of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Get Happy”; Kurt transforms the peppy innocence of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” into a tender ballad of one boy wanting to touch another. And when Blaine (Darren Kriss) and the Warblers perform Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs” a cappella, they could be the Boys’ Choir of Lima.

(VIDEO: Chris Colfer talks Glee, Bullying and Being Yourself)

5. The Miracles. Not Smokey Robinson’s backup group: we mean actual, inexplicable, borderline-divine, life-changing events. To qualify an applicant for sainthood, the Catholic Church requires three demonstrable miracles — exactly the number provided by the testimonials of Glee fans (in doc footage shot by Jennifer Arnold) and sprinkled throughout the film. Josie Pickering, diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, credits Glee for helping her to forget her troubles and discover friends. Trenton Thompson, a gay teen rudely outed in eighth grade when the boy he secretly loved was passed Trenton’s diary, finds strength in Kurt’s pain and pride. And though the Glee connection is more tenuous in the story of Janae Meraz, a cheerleader and a dwarf, it’s nice to learn she was crowned princess of her high school prom.

One peculiarity of the movie is that, in the backstage scenes, the cast stays in character. Santana (the great and underused Maya Rivera) plays bitch goddess to her girl rivals, while Brittany is pleased that the concert film will be in 3-D, so she can show off her boobs — as she does, in a slinky outfit dancing to the real Britney Spears’ “I’m a Slave 4 U,” which should warm up the three heterosexual males who may see the movie. Also, and bizarrely, the dressing rooms are apparently off-limits to adults, including glee-club director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison). Maybe they don’t need Will to give them a preconcert pep talk, since their favorite substitute teacher Holly Holliday (Academy Award-winner Gwyneth Paltrow) has dropped by to perform “Forget You,” the PG version of last year’s Cee Lo Green hit.

(READ: “How Does Glee Choose Its Songs?”)

Fans might prefer it if the real stars answered real questions. Chord Overstreet, you’ve been dropped from the show. Your thoughts? Or: Lea, you’ve been channeling Barbra Streisand since you were a tot — your first word was probably a warbled “People” — and in the film, just before you sing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” somebody tells that B.S. herself is in the audience. Now you’ve just learned that the Streisand role in a big L.A. revival of Funny Girl has gone to Lauren Ambrose. How’s your day? But to allow any reality, even reality TV, into the votive world of Glee 3D might break the spell.

The movie even provides an onstage miracle. Saying he has always dreamed of walking, Artie (Kevin McHale), the crippled kid, rises from his wheelchair to perform Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance” and executing some pretty slick snake moves. A pity that Rachel can’t dream herself tall, or Lauren (Ashley Fink) suddenly change from fat and surly to thin and gracious. But Artie’s dream dance reminds us that the whole movie is the group fantasy of the McKinley High glee club: that they are magically onstage, belting out the numbers they performed after school, and adored by thousands of teens just like themselves. In Glee 3D the audience gets to share that dream, the answer to its collective prayer, the final musical miracle.