Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay by Melvyn Bragg, Norman Jewison; based upon the rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics and book by Tim Rice. Produced by Norman Jewison, Robert Stigwood. Photographed by Douglas Slocombe. Edited by Antony Gibbs. Production designed by Richard MacDonald. Starring Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham, Larry Marshall, Josh Mostel, Kurt Yaghjian, Phillip Toubus.
Jesus Christ Superstar is an entertaining, effective and faithful film version of the rock opera of the same name. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because it imports a solid musical score from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It’s bad because…well, the years have not been entirely kind to Jesus Christ Superstar. Written in the drug-drenched hippie daze of the 60’s, and first performed in the anti-authoritarian, post-Watergate bummer time of the 70’s, it exists today more as a nostalgia piece with kickass songs than a perceptive look at the life of Christ, and I believe the latter was its intent. Forgive me for saying so, but if you divorce Jesus Christ Superstar from its history, it’s kinda…I dunno…dopey.
Now, listen. You will never find a more ardent fan of the original 1970 concept album called Jesus Christ Superstar than I. It was an innovative idea: take Christ’s passion story and relay it entirely through rock songs. And to tell much of it from the perspective of Judas, the guy who appears only briefly in the bible, and only then in the line that goes something like “and then that sunovabitch betrayed Christ.” [I may be off on some of my wording, it’s been a while since I’ve read it.] And then they turned it into a multimillion dollar musical, survived against a wave of criticism and charges of blasphemy, and prospered for over 40 years. Even as I write this a new production is being mounted on Broadway. That’s great.
But what is Jesus Christ Superstar really about? It’s about awesome songs. And being cool. And it’s also about itself. There are gestures every once in a while in the direction of deeper themes that could be explored: the vapid followers of celebrities, for example, and also the idea that pressure can turn even the most devoutly spiritual into politicians. These gestures are faithfully preserved in the film version, and just like on the stage they are insufficient. For all intents and purposes, Superstar is just plain a fun musical about Jesus’ death. That’s not a problem at all—it’s the false pretenses of depth on display that grate. It’s not Superstar’s fault that it came out later, but The Last Temptation of Christ runs circles around Superstar in the intelligence department.
Okay, so, fine. Superstar’s not really interested in being deep. It just wants to be fun and work within its own terms. Well, okay, except it has a big gaping hole where its center should be: the role of Jesus Christ. As portrayed by Ted Neeley, Jesus is less the charming philosopher we’ve heard about and more a shrieky prima donna who keeps his followers around not because he’s so charismatic but, I guess, because he likes having people to yell at. Some of these traits are dictated by the vocal demands of the role (the score makes him yelp a lot), but come on. Where’s the vision of Christ we have in our heads that shows a man who seems to care about anyone but himself? Not present. He’s understandably distracted by his upcoming death, but instead of seeming pensive, he’s petulant, especially to his friends. Much of the story’s drive hinges on Jesus being a captivating presence, but we’re never really shown that. Nor are we given many words from him that seem to reflect his teachings. Let’s call it: Jesus seems like a jerk, which is…strange.
Even at his most dramatic moments, Christ comes across as condescending, even vain. He rebukes a plea for violent rebellion with a sad song about how dim-witted his apostles are, and yet later rails against his father (or Father, if you prefer) like a screaming baby. On trial for his life, his defeatist posture brings to mind a sullen teen who crashed his dad’s car. Even the muted Last Supper scene plays for Jesus like a manifestation of his paranoid fears, and he only rises above his apostles in the scene by being the only one who doesn’t seem legitimately stupid. All of these are written into the script of Rice and Webber’s opera and have been since the very beginning, and yet it’s not their fault—it’s the fault of Neeley, who turns Jesus’ worst qualities on the page and then cranks them to 11. Part of this is essential to the overall approach of demystifying the figure of Jesus, but they completely overcompensate and turn him into a vapid bore.
Other elements are more impressive. The director, Norman Jewison, was no stranger to musicals, having helmed Fiddler on the Roof a mere two years earlier. Here he has his work cut out for him, as Superstar’s main aesthetic is oddness: the stage show dines on avant-garde sets and choreography, parallels then-contemporary politics and social agendas, and even some random modern idioms pop into the lyrics. It would be quite impossible to mount a “realistic” production of Jesus Christ Superstar, because the show refutes realism. So as a solution Jewison takes the weirdness and goes weirder: he takes the story and effectively frames it within another story, that of a team of actors who arrive in the desert (actually the ruins of Avdat, in Israel) to perform, why, Jesus Christ Superstar, of course. For whom? There’s no audience, and no real manageable stage, for that matter. Is it for the cameras? The cameras recording the movie that we’re actually watching? Guys…are we part of the movie? I hate to draw the comparison, but I think this merits it: it’s very Buñuel.
Then we get more surrealistic touches, all perhaps dictated by the logic of a ragtag group of actors scraping together what they have for props: while Jesus does wear his traditional robe, his disciples wear 1970’s-style fashions chosen to stand out in the middle of the desert. They’re hideously ugly, in other words. Roman soliders strut around in tank-tops, wearing belts and uzis. A visit to the ill-fated outdoor market of the Jerusalem temple is a mish-mash of modern-day ills: drugs, prostitutes, knickknacks, automatic weapons. Hell, the Temple itself is not a building at all but a skimpy scaffolding that looks like an expanded jungle gym. There’s a haunting moment when Judas, lost in thought, is interrupted by a trio of tanks and a couple fighter jets. Is this a nod to ever-tumultuous Middle Eastern politics? Um…perhaps?
The film’s structure perfectly replicates Webber and Rice’s rock opera, warts and all. Because it is an opera, that means we don’t really get dialogue, just song after song. New location: new song, etc etc. Sometimes the transitions are a little wonky: one sequence begins with the participants literally materializing out of thin air, as the previous sequence didn’t leave much place to go. On stage the whole thing works better; the film seems uncomfortable with the whole one-damn-thing-after-another attitude and shifts uneasily sometimes between the naturalistic and fantastic. It’s easy to imagine Jewison on location and later sitting with his editor, Anthony Gibbs, wondering how the hell they were going to cut together the sequences they shot.
Jewison’s command of the musical numbers, however, is terrific, with some pretty-good choreography (by Robert Iscove). Although some of the dance moves may seem dated….no, scratch that. They’re dated. Period. But the filmmaking is pretty exciting to watch when you realize that, in an important way, you are basically watching the birth of the music video. One song in particular (that would be the hugely energetic “Simon Zealotes”) has so much b-roll gyrating and grooving intercut with screaming vocalists it seems to uncannily predict…oh, any afternoon on MTV, circa 1985.
The movie’s first half hour or so works best, perhaps because it starts by featuring the film’s key performance that does work, Carl Anderson’s Judas. Indeed, he’s so strong in the role that we can be forgiven for getting disappointed when he moves offstage. Judas, a far cry from the one-dimensional character in the bible, is given weight and depth here, as he unknowingly struggles with his own destiny as traitor: he has, it turns out, legitimate concerns about Jesus’ growing popularity, and begins to behave like a frustrated press agent who isn’t being listened to anymore because his client’s now a rock star. Anderson is perhaps the most human and comfortable of all the actors on screen. Although there was some controversy at the time of the film’s making for Anderson being the only black main cast member, and playing—of all people—Judas, the argument just doesn’t hold water. It’s clear that he’s great in the role, and Judas as written really isn’t a villain at all.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. You’ve got Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen), the mincing Roman procurator with a David Bowie wardrobe. And you have Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman), who has a beautiful voice but isn’t very important to the plot, and has basically one facial expression: pained. You have the many apostles, none of whom are very distinctive except for the athletic Simon (Larry Marshall) and head boy Peter (Philip Toubas), who sits at the Last Supper, denies Jesus three times, and then becomes a porn star. Okay, that third thing doesn’t happen in the movie, it just happened in real life to the guy, who is also known as Paul Thomas. That would probably make an interesting chapter or two in a biography, I wager.
The movie is not very considerate to Jews, I must say. Fragments of discarded Christian dogma do blame the Hebrews for Jesus’ ultimate execution, but more enlightened materials shift the blame to Roman politics. Here we kinda get both, and it’s unfortunate that the Jewish high priests here are relegated exclusively to mercurial, teeth-gnashing villains (complete with costumes that feel repurposed from a 1940’s space opera). And that’s nothing compared to the antics of King Herod (Josh Mostel) who gets a vaudeville-style number (with a chorus line of boy-and-girl-toys) that falls irredeemably flat with its offensive stereotyping. Obviously, we’re watching an opera, and operas can caricature with the best of them by virtue of their typically-unsubtle approach, but I still think somewhere a line is crossed that you’d expect Jewison to be more aware of.
The musical numbers are, aside from those occasional lapses, are well done, but they’re dwarfed by the film’s technical credits. Whoever did the location scouting on this movie certainly earned their pay: we see mountains, canyons and caves, not just as backdrops, but as actual locations that the characters travel to and from. One astonishing early moment finds Judas at the top of a frightening peak by zooming in…and in…and in. This mirrors another frame that shows Jesus imprisoned in a cave and the camera tilts up and up and up, with no ceiling in sight. Some shots are wide. Very wide. As in “camera tipping off the side of a mountain” wide. The overall effect is to underscore the emotions: loneliness, isolation, and also suggest a stark and deceptive level of beauty. It also creates a movie desert that feels like a desert, with varied geography and features, not just one dune that the camera focuses on over and over. The photography is by Douglas Slocombe, who also lensed Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Lion In Winter. He’s a master.
As a theological experience, Jesus Christ Superstar is pretty much a non-starter, and as a lapsed Catholic I find that more than fine. It has no deep insights about Christ and no specific perspective on Christian mythology, it simply wants to repackage those things for the benefit of a fun show. It does. But I’d be lying if I said that the conceit doesn’t eventually wear a little thin, because that’s all it is: a silly conceit. Like many Easter traditions, it’s colorful, sweet, and eventually too much of it makes you a little sick.