Grade: B+Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Director: Norman Jewison

Stars: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Josh Mostel

Release Company: Universal/MCA

MPAA Rating: G

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Jewison: Jesus Christ Superstar


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I'm not a huge Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I always refrained from seeing Cats when in New York City, never cried for Evita, and only belatedly took in the setpieces and scenery of Phantom of the Opera when a touring production set up on the Arizona State campus. However, Andrew Lloyd Webber did take on one project that intrigued me greatly: In 1970, he teamed with Tim Rice to create the first true rock musical.

The story was based on the life of Jesus Christ as seen from the viewpoint of Judas. Technically, it was a rock operetta; all the dialogue comes through song. Written at the end of the 1960s, it borrows from the rock sounds of the time, and transposes them into a pop form. Don't expect hardcore, heavy rock here.

When it was first produced, there was no stage play yet—Jesus Christ Superstar was simply a concept album. A controversial one at that—taking a point of view similar to that of Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, with Judas playing a more sympathetic character and presenting ideas that were rarely discussed in most Sunday-school classes.

The strength of the work relies on Webber's music and Tim Rice's often-provocative lyrics. Jesus Christ Superstar was an album to listen to repeatedly, accompanied by the transcribed words. Open-minded people discussed it with other open-minded people. The powerful album (which came about because Webber and Rice couldn't find the funding to stage it as a musical) included an impressive cast: Murray Head as Judas, Ian Gillan (of Deep Purple) as Jesus, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Jesus Christ Superstar rose on the charts—the title song reached Top 40 status, and Elliman's "I Don't Know How to Love Him" got radio play. Soon, the operetta went into stage production, to be followed by Norman Jewison's film version in 1973.

Jewison produces and directs Jesus Christ Superstar and tweaks the script, so we must credit (or discredit) him for the film production. Though Jewison knows how to film traditional musicals, having previously directed the successful film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar requires creativity.

Elaborate sets could distract from the powerful lyrics; Jewison uses minimalist sets and costumes. This may lose some people, but many would already be lost because of the rock music and the challenging ideas found within the lyrics. These abstract setpieces contain some creative camera work that adds to the effect. One notable touch begins with a tracking shot in the sky of a solitary black vulture, transitioning to a scaffold where the black-robed Caiaphas and his other priests lurk vulture-like over the proceedings.

I also like the transition from modern times to the Biblical times as the actors set up for the play, a conceit Jewison uses at the beginning to establish we are about to witness a staged theatrical production. The bus unloads and the actors begin to get into costume and character, trying on the helmets and swords and other props. There's also that nostalgic '60s feeling of group hugs and happenings in this opening scene.

OK, some of you want realism, like you see in Zeffirelli's 6-hour epic Jesus of Nazareth, which attempts to depict the gospels as closely to the written word as it can without deeper interpretations. I've heard many people who prefer a film like this, and I've also heard them state that they like the way Jesus of Nazareth is so accurate—it even takes place in the Holy Land. Perhaps these people should check out the Internet Movie Database, where they would find that Zeffirelli filmed in Tunisia. One of Jesus Christ Superstar's bonuses is that Jewison actually shoots his film on location in Israel.

After multiple hearings of the original album, I wasn't sure that I could accept other singers. I was really pleased to find that Yvonne Elliman was retained to portray Mary Magdalene. With the first song, I discovered that Carl Anderson carries his Judas singing role superbly. He has a powerful voice and great range.

But I was concerned about Ted Neeley as Jesus. No way was his voice up to Gillan's, and his vocal abilities seemed relatively wimpy. I still feel a bit uncomfortable with the thinness of his voice on a few of the early songs, but I forgive any initial shortcomings for his magnificent rendition on one of the film's key songs, "Gethsemene (I Only Want to Say)."

This is the song in which Christ wrestles with himself. He asks God to take "the cup of poison" away, and wonders why he must die. It plays fairly straightforward on the album, but with Jewison's staging and Neeley's interpretation, there comes a turning point so profound it brings pause every time I see it. And Neeley does this near-imperceptibly. Watch him closely when he's talking about being scared to finish what he started: Neeley does a quick doubletake and states "What you started—I didn't start it!" His whole attitude changes here, and he ends with a moving resolution.

Many other setpieces are extremely well-done. Everything is a setpiece; it's one musical number after another. I especially like the poignancy of Yvonne Elliman's solos and the humor of Josh Mostel (as King Herod, the captive fan). Herod pleads with Christ to change his water into wine or stroll across his swimming pool—before he calls him a fraud and says "Get out, you King of the Jews/Get out of my life!"

Designed to appeal to young people, Jesus Christ Superstar certainly made an impact in the 1970s, and caused many to evaluate who Christ really was.

The film certainly doesn't take the stereotypical roles that Sunday-school classes had taught for years. Here we find a Judas who analyzes and questions Christ's station and mission, and only betrays him because he obeys what Christ wants him to do; a Pontius Pilate who worries about how history will regard him; a Mary Magdalene who really loves Jesus more than platonically; a Caiaphas who feels he must rid himself of Jesus for political reasons; and a Jesus who has doubts and possesses human qualities that are overlooked by some Christians.

Even the choices made at the end leave room for interpretation. Choosing the text from Matthew's account of the crucifixion leaves us to ask why Christ asks God "Why have you forgotten me?" And there's the ambiguity left in the silent looks of the characters as they reboard the bus at the end, sans Ted Neeley.

Of course Jesus Christ Superstar isn't for everyone. There's no way any controversial art piece can appeal to all people. Some people prefer Thomas Kincaid landscapes or Norman Rockwell illustrations; others prefer Monet, Van Gogh, or Dali. The same principle applies here with Jesus Christ Superstar. For people into abstractions and who may see the world surrealistically, it works just fine. It definitely works for me.

Most films present the Gospel story as if it were banal and simplistic, for young children to accept without question. Jesus Christ Superstar challenges the viewer and expects him to think and react. Like a baptism by fire, Jesus Christ Superstar rarely leaves the viewer in lukewarm waters. Considering the source material, all I can conclude is that Jewison's uneven film succeeds by accomplishing its purpose.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a great discussion-starter and ranks alongside Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ for provocative treatment of similar subject matter. Any film that sparks thinking differently about widely accepted paradigms must be considered a success.


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