Jesus Christ Superstar: Saving Souls With Rock

AND NOW THE FILM.

jesuschristsuperstarPerhaps it felt like a natural thing for director Norman Jewison to move from one Jewish epic to another. After making Fiddler on the Roof (1971), the acclaimed filmmaker decided to bring a Broadway show called “Jesus Christ Superstar” to the screen. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera debuted on Broadway in 1971 after the release of the album. Having listened to the soundtrack many times, it was quite a strange experience for me to finally watch the images that went along with the songs.

I think that is largely due to the songs’ intentional anachronisms that are even more apparent in the movie. It begins with a bunch of young hippies getting out of a bus in the middle of the desert. They dress up and produce a cross from the bus; we understand that this is the cast preparing to bring the show to the very place where Jesus allegedly lived. And then it starts.

At first, the focus is on Judas (Carl Anderson) and he remains a crucial character in the story. We learn that his admiration of Jesus (Ted Neeley) is coming to an end. He thinks the charismatic new preacher surrounds himself with the wrong people, such as a prostitute called Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman), and that his challenging the Pharisees, who have a productive relationship with the Romans, will only make any kind of uprising among the Jews impossible. And that ain’t cool, man. You know what happens next; Judas betrays Jesus for 30 silver coins and Christ is crucified. That’s where the movie ends; we never really get to see the crucifixion.

All classics in their own right
At the time of the film’s release, religious conservatives had plenty to complain about and one of their gripes was that Judas was portrayed in a sympathetic way. That’s debatable, but what the filmmakers do is show the reasoning behind Judas’s decision. That makes him easier to understand and the story more interesting than a simple, traditional retelling. There’s no dialogue in the film; the songs follow consecutively. That’s a risky thing to do, but this musical is one of those few where almost each and every one of the songs are good, classics in their own right. You’ve got “Heaven On Their Minds” where Judas accuses Jesus of not getting his priorities straight, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, one of the most famous love songs ever written, and “King Herod’s Song”, an ingenious little piece where the decadent king gives Christ a chance to prove his mettle (“walk across my swimming pool”). And there are many more.

Anderson is particularly good as Judas, but his character is also the richest; Neeley looks like a traditional Christ, albeit one who knows how to belt out a rock tune. Also memorable are the Roman soldiers who look like the Village People, and the bare-chested Pharisees in their black leather hats. Far out.

It sure is a corny experience, but the sincere performances and the occasionally moving songs keep the film on track. There are also moments when the anachronisms make a perfect connection with our times, not least when Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the temple. Besides, a reminder of who the original superstar is seems at least like a novel idea in an age where artists and actors are idolized.

Jesus Christ Superstar 1973-U.S. 103 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Norman Jewison, Robert Stigwood. Directed by Norman Jewison. Screenplay: Norman Jewison, Melvyn Bragg. Songs: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice (“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, “King Herod’s Song”, “Everything’s Alright”, “Heaven On Their Minds”, “Could We Start Again, Please?”). Cast: Ted Neeley (Jesus), Carl Anderson (Judas), Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), Barry Dennen, Joshua Mostel, Bob Bingham.

Trivia: Porn star Paul Thomas plays Peter; you may know him from such classics as Backside to the Future (1986), Oral Majority (1987) and Ready, Willing and Anal (1993). Remade for British TV in 2000.

Last word: “I haven’t seen ‘Godspell’, but ‘The Last Temptation’ was magnificent. I remember the protests when the movie opened. Religious groups would bus-in mobs to protest and fight outside the theaters. At the time I couldn’t understand why because if they [movie producers] cave in, then it’s no longer about artistic license. I used the book, ‘The Last Temptation’ [by Nikos Kazantzakis] as research when I was filming ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.” (Neeley, Seattle Gay News)

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