CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)

DIRECTED BY: Norman Jewison

FEATURING: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman

PLOT: The last days of Jesus Christ, including the Last Supper, his betrayal by Judas, and his crucifixion, sung to a propulsive rock score composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though the very premise – a rock ‘n’ roll passion play – is inherently offbeat, and this particular version is laced with anachronisms and unusual characterizations, this is at heart a straightforward, earnest account of the story.

COMMENTS: When Superstar debuted on the Broadway stage in 1971, the very notion of a rock-n-roll passion play must have carried an unmistakable air of sacrilege. (Although another pop-oriented take on the story, “Godspell,” premiered off-Broadway the same year, and a film of that musical also came out in 1973.) But the show struck a chord with audiences; spawned from a concept album that had sold millions of copies, the musical ran for nearly two years on Broadway and spent eight years on the London stage, closing as the longest-running show in British history. A film version was probably inevitable; that the adaptaion would be placed in the hands of the director of In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair might not have been.

To Norman Jewison’s credit (the screenplay is credited to him and British broadcaster Melvyn Bragg), the movie faithfully retains the show’s determination to treat its characters as human beings, rather than the religious icons they have become. Lyricist Tim Rice sparked some controversy by suggesting that he and partner Andrew Lloyd Webber simply wanted to portray Jesus as a man, but they doggedly stuck to that vision, and the results are intriguing: Jesus is beleaguered and plagued by doubts. Judas is a buzzkill true believer, hectoring Jesus for being insufficiently pious and ultimately betraying the man he idolizes out of a sense of moral outrage. Pilate is the most reasonable man in Judea, Mary Magdalene is hopelessly confused, and the apostles are shiftless hippies. It’s probably not the version taught in Sunday school, but it lends the events a greater dramatic heft.

If Jesus Christ Superstar is controversial, it’s because it doesn’t traffic in the more mystical religious elements of the Easter story. No miracles, no resurrection. Instead, characters are trapped in a story over which they have no control. Foremost is Jesus, who implores a silent God to explain the reason for a sacrifice he cannot evade. Yet, he sees not explanations, but only the predetermined tragedies of all he encounters. He predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, to their great puzzlement. “You have nothing in your hands,” he tells Pilate. “Everything is fixed, and you can’t change it.” Faith accepts predestination, but it often does so in the service of a greater plan. That purpose is denied in this telling of the Christ tale, which adds one more disorienting effect in a film that’s already off-kilter.

The film version makes it clear from the outset that reality is in flux. Our cast arrives in an old school bus and begins setting up during the overture. Scenes take places in huge, empty vistas or on the sites of old ruins, like ghosts resurrected on the spot. (The film was shot on location in Israel). Roman soldiers carry machine guns, tanks and fighter jets menace the countryside, picture postcards are sold alongside the moneychangers at the temple. Perhaps most bizarre is a visit to King Herod, who mocks Jesus to the tune of a jaunty vaudeville number. These touches bolster the ahistorical musical style and reinforce the theme of a performance, rather than a true re-enactment. Indeed, in the show’s best known number, “Superstar,” Judas returns from the dead in a white suit appropriate for a Vegas-era Elvis, descending from the heavens on a shiny cross and surrounded by flashy dancing girls. Heck yes, it’s jarring, but fits the overall tone.

Ultimately, however, the weirdness is on the fringes. The story itself is strictly according to Gospel, sometimes to the detriment of the movie. For example, after he is turned in, Jesus is mostly reduced to standing by mutely while others debate his fate. It’s tough when the main character is silent for nearly half the film, although it does magnify the portrayal of Judas as misunderstood martyr (bolstered by Carl Anderson’s powerful performance).

If you can’t buy the Gospels as a rock opera, then Jesus Christ Superstar will seem unavoidably strange. If you can, then the film isn’t even the strangest production of the rock opera (a good candidate for that title might be the concert performance starring the Indigo Girls as Jesus and Mary Magdalene!)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…director Norman Jewison surfaced as Ken Russell in this frenetic, all-too-often rhetorical, machine gun/tank/airplane-strewn Saint Vitus’s dance in the desert.” – Don Druker, Chicago Reader

3 thoughts on “CAPSULE: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973)”

  1. I love the anachronisms and “weird notes” Jewison added into this adaptation—the tanks and machine guns, Judas descending from heaven on a crane to sing the title tune backed by Soul Train dancers (!), Roman guards in pink tank tops, and the wraparound with the hippie theater troupe setting up in the desert. The locations are also amazing! I have one small complaint about the adaptation, though. Although Ted Neely is fine (I prefer Ian Gillian’s vocals from the original studio album, but not by that much), he’s too short to play the Messiah! It may sound shallow, but I have trouble accepting a petite Jesus. Carl Anderson makes a great Judas, however, surpassing Murray Head’s excellent Iscariot.

  2. Jesus doesn’t necessarily have to be tall (the Bible says absolutely nothing about what he looked like) – in his younger pre-Dracula days back home in Hungary, Bela Lugosi played him on stage, and he wasn’t exactly a giant. I think everybody’s vision of the ultimate cinematic Jesus owes a great deal to Max Von Sydow, so basically the ideal actor to play our Lord is one who can give the impression that, if he hadn’t been crucified at an early age, he might eventually have turned into Ming the Merciless! So maybe the Romans had a point after all? The trick with Messiahs is to catch them while they’re still young and idealistic, and securely nail them to something before they grow up and turn all bitter and cynical, and start saying things like: “Dispatch War Rocket Ajax to bring me his body!”

    Then again, the most iconic popular image of Jesus of them all is probably Leonardo’s Last Supper, in which, in order to make him more impressive than the others, the proportions of Jesus are subtly exaggerated. Assuming the disciples to be normal-sized men (and women, if Dan Brown is correct), if Jesus was standing up he’d be 8 feet tall.

    On the subject of weird films with a lot of music in them which are about somebody very Christ-like, might I suggest the extremely strange Privilege, a satire from the tail-end of the Swinging Sixties in which a mega-successful pop superstar is manipulated by a near-future fascist UK government to control the masses, ultimately becoming an almost literal incarnation of Jesus Christ, whose stage-act includes dancing priests giving Nazi salutes. It’s one of those films with one or two jaw-dropping scenes that make you wish the whole movie was like that, but which probably won’t make The List because the whole movie isn’t like that. It’s also the kind of film which always makes me think: “Why didn’t they hire Ken Russell instead of (whoever)?”

    I’m not proposing it as a List Candidate because I know it falls short of the mark, or as a great movie because it’s a bit too bluntly satirical to be as much fun as it should be, but it’s an interesting period piece that seems to have sunk without trace compared to gleeful trash like Psych-Out, probably because it tries to ram a political message down your throat with all the subtlety of the very people it’s having a go at. Nevertheless, a real curiosity, if only because there are very few films like it. Sort of like V For Vendetta with singing, if V was a whiny man-child whose ultimate act of rebellion was to throw a hissy fit.

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