Friday, March 26, 2010

Film Friday: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those strange movies that grows on you. When I first saw it, late, late, late one night, I thought it stank. I didn’t like the music. I didn’t like the actors. I thought the whole thing was done on the cheap. But I gave it a second chance, and before it was over, I was hooked. It's now become one of my favorite musicals.

** spoiler alert **

Directed by Norman Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar is the big screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical of the same name, which is a musical based on the crucifixion of Jesus. Sounds like a hoot, right? Well, it gets worse. Jewison decided to go with minimal sets, minimal costumes, and unknown actors. Thus, the sets are little more than ruins and the costumes look like the casual clothes the actors wore to the first rehearsal. Moreover, where props are added, Jewison uses modern props, e.g. machine guns. Also, the soundtrack mixes some of Webber’s “kitschiest” bits with 1970s rock. What could possibly go wrong?

Interestingly, it is these choices that make the film. The minimal sets turn out to be a genius stroke. By giving us only hints of how these familiar buildings looked, Jewison lets the filmgoer fill in the details with their own views of how these places must have looked. This brings the viewer in and produces sets that are much more personal than if a team of workers constructed phony facades. Moreover, because the landscapes are spectacular -- it was filmed in Israel -- you spend the entire film lost in the impressive scenery, which easily takes you back 2000 years.

The music turns out to be a brilliant choice too. Whereas most musicals repeat one sound over and over, and which rarely lends itself to song that will work outside the musical, Superstar's use of rock music gives these songs a life beyond the film. Moreover, the choice of rock music lends the film a seriousness which the traditional vaudeville-like music of musicals can’t touch. When you have a guy pounding away at a piano stretching out his “A’s” (as in “raaaag time baaaaaaaand”) you just can’t deal with serious themes. But Superstar's songs are serious and philosophical, sometimes just plain beautiful. My personal favorite is “Could We Start Again Please,” which builds amazingly, though the most famous is “I Don't Know How To Love Him,” sung by Yvonne Elliman, who plays Mary Magdalene and went on to sing the hit “If I Can’t Have You” from Saturday Night Fever.

The story itself is quite good, though it upsets some people. Indeed, when Superstar came out, it was highly controversial, though its success has tempered the criticism today. At the time, some Jews claimed some of the lyrics were anti-Semitic. Catholics and Protestants were upset that Jesus was portrayed as possibly being interested in sex, though this is only hinted at, that Judas was portrayed too sympathetically, that Judas asserts that Jesus is just a man, and some considered it blasphemous that Jesus wasn’t shown being resurrected. Some also objected to having Jesus and the gang portrayed by dirty hippies, and that Judas was played by a black actor. Oh well.

If you require Biblical stories to be humorless, with one-dimensional characters, then this movie is not for you.

The lyrics are witty and clever, often with interesting bits of humor thrown in. The actors are excellent, though it takes a while to realize how perfect they truly are for the roles. Ted Neely, who plays Jesus, is infinitely better than “Thorazine Jesus” played by Willem Defoe. This Jesus has passion and he doesn’t confuse “meek” with “Holy.” Elliman plays a wonderfully conflicted Mary Magdalene, who loves Jesus, but doubts her ability to be worthy of him. And Judas. . . what can you say about Judas?

Many of the detractors hate this version of Judas. They claim he’s too sympathetic -- they apparently want the Snidely Whiplash version who foams at the mouth from start to finish. But Carl Anderson gives us a complex Judas, who presents both a believable betrayal and a believable contrition. Anderson begins by accusing Jesus of having lost his way. He sees Jesus as a man who is drunk with all the adulation, and who has deluded himself into believing he’s God. This allows Judas to fall under the spell of the Priests who tell him that they want to stop Jesus for the good of the Jews. But the moment he betrays Jesus, Anderson really turns up the volume, giving us an amazing guilt-ridden tantrum, followed by hopelessness personified, and finally suicide. In the end, Judas re-appears in the cleverest number ever to feature a tasseled white jumpsuit.

There is real emotion behind these actors. Their dancing is excellent, and their singing, which at first seems strange as it is an unusual style for musicals, really makes the movie stand out. In fact, I’ve heard other, more famous singers take on these rolls (there have been several versions of the soundtrack released and at least one remake), and those actors added a level of gloss that felt fake and made the roles less real. . . less emotional.

What the critics miss about Jesus Christ Superstar is that the movie approaches its subject matter with incredible care and a real love. Jesus is tested, but regains his faith. Those who have faith in him are rewarded. Those who have betrayed him suffer their own damnation. Yet, each of the characters is treated fairly, good guy or bad, and the actors play them with full belief in them as real people, not as props to hit certain plot points. Finally, the ending is so jarring that it does a good job of imparting the anguish with which the real story ends.

So if you haven’t see this movie, I highly recommend it, and Easter is a great time for it. If you saw it once and didn’t like it, give it a second try.

Finally, I mention the remake. Don’t watch it. They use the setting of a London street gang, and it’s highly politically correct. Moreover, the songs all have a nasty edge, particular the King Herod part, and the characters seem much more one-dimensional and, often, hateful.

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StanH said...

“What’s the fuss tell me what’s a happening.” I saw it the day it came out in South Georgia, deep in the heart of the bible belt, the Baptist more specifically. Needless to say there was much gnashing of teeth, oh my God, you’d have thunk the antichrist had come to town. LOL! I had heard the musical on LP before the movie and liked it, especially the Bass player. I didn’t like the movie at first viewing, but like you it grew on me as time passed. My mother who saw JCS, and Hair first runs in NYC, said the movie was in keeping with the Broadway play, so there’s that. That’s where we got the LP.

A fun fact maybe Jed can confirm this, the original Broadway cast had Ian Gillian in the role of Christ. He became the 2nd lead singer for Deep Purple, great singer.

Joel Farnham said...


I think I have seen parts of it, not the whole production. The songs bring back memories. Some good, some bad.

I will give it a try. Thank you.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, Even today, you run into people who just start gnashing their teeth about the film. Yet, for the most part, they've never seen it. Or they are upset about quotes made by the bad guys and they attribute those as the theme of the film. If you watch the film, it really does seem to love its subject matter a lot.

You're right about Ian Gillian. He was in the Broadway cast and then turned down the movie to tour with Deep Purple. Other famous people considered for the role of Jesus were John Travolta and Micky Dolenz (of the Monkeys).

CrisD said...

My "crazy" uncle played the moog synthesizer for the Broadway production which preceeded the movie. Mom threw a cast party when they came to Philadelphia. A few of the actors went on to do the movie that you write about and we enjoyed meeting them and have great family pic of this fun time. Carl was a hoot!

As to the show, it is really a seventies production. IMO the writers and lyricists may have wished to have taken their revisions further but stopped b/c it would not have been accepted. There was controversy about it anyway.

In my bible study, I can say that in interpretation they did not cross the line but I think it was quite romantic. You could say it is the other side of the coin of Jesus' portrait painted on velvet. Same coin, though...

Good songs. Great voices.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, You're welcome. I think you'll like it. But I caution that everyone I know (just as Stan himself mentions above) seems to need two viewings before they like the film.

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, Neat! I have to say that Carl Anderson impressed me the most out of the cast. His voice was fantastic, his acting was stellar, and you could tell he had a great sense of humor -- especially in the last number.

I understand that he and Neely went on to continue their roles for decades thereafter in theater, which I think is great.

I think the word "romantic" is a perfect description. This film doesn't present the story as "gritty fact" (like Passion of the Christ) nor does it present it as some of the stayed epics on the subject, or as a "what if" like Last Temptation. It really has a different interpretation entirely -- kind of like a bunch of people who just got together because they wanted to tell the story.

In that regard, it has a very 1970s feel, especially given the costumes, the hair and the music, which has the definite 1970s rock feel to it. Like I mention briefly, they re-made about ten years ago and it had lost the "innocence" of this presentation and became rather nasty.

CrispyRice said...

Nice review, Andrew. I'm rather fond of this one myself. And the soundtrack is fantastic for belting out all alone in the car on some desolate stretch of interstate! ;)

We saw it on stage last year (?) with Ted Neely in the lead role still. It was neat to see him, but, sad to say, he hasn't held up. :( 'Course, it's been 30+ years and it's a rather demanding singing part. Stick to the movie.

Definitely time for a re-watching!

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, I knew there were more fans in the audience! I agree about the soundtrack. I think the choice of rock really lets it move beyond just seeing it on stage. Too many other musicals really don't work outside of seeing the entire musical.

Sorry to hear that Neley isn't what he used to be, but it have been almost 40 years since he made the move (1973). And time does do us in. Anderson died a year or two ago. Still, it's good to see that he made a career of it and that he apparently likes it enough to keep doing it.

Unknown said...

Gnash, gnash.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Sorry Lawhawk!

Unknown said...

Andrew: Well, I will admit that some of the music is catchy. And it could have been worse. It could have been Godspell.

AndrewPrice said...

That's a start. We'll convert you yet Lawhawk!

Unknown said...

I thought they were making fun of my savior at first but then I realized that it was just over the top broadway and after a while I liked it.

AndrewPrice said...

Rob, I think at first glance, it's so different that it seems like it has to be disrespectful or meant as an insult. But as you note, it's really just the way musicals are, and I think they honestly meant it to be a loving tribute.

Individualist said...

I think I was too young as this came out in the 70's so I don't beleive I have seen it. That being said the Songs from the msical are very familiar to me.

I think the criticism of this movie waned whent the other one came out where Jesus marries Mary Magdellan in a dream and there are some erotic homosexual scenes. I am forgetting the name. I did not see that movie either.

Oh it was The Last Temptation.

I guess you can't make a movie on this subject without hearing a lot of hootin' and hollerin' about it.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I think you are all but garanteed to upset someone if you make a movie about Jesus. It's hard to say what caused the controversy to fade on this one. My guess is that over time people simply realized that it wasn't as offensive as they had been lead to believe. And you might be right that the much more controversial Last Temptation made this one seem much less controversial by comparison? I also suspect that as we got further away from the 1960s, the public's anger at hippies decreased -- it's easy to see these actors as hippies and thus assume the movie is meant as counter-culture, though I don't think that's accurate.

MegaTroll said...

Cool flick. It took me a while to like it too, but I dig the guitars.

AndrewPrice said...

Alex, That's true. And I agree, a great movie. Thanks for commenting.

alexj1424 said...

If you look very closely in the end you can see that he is no longer on the cross and you can see Ted Neeley's (Jesus') silhouette in the background against the dark mountain leading a flock/herd of sheep. Amazing movie.

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