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.
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: