- Director: Norman Jewison
- Writers: Melvyn Bragg and Norman Jewison, based on the stage musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
- Starring: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennan, Bob Bingham, Larry Marshall, Josh Mostel, Kurt Yaghjian, and Philip Toubus
- Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Adapted Score)
- Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
As it’s Easter for our friends of the Christian faith, I figured we could check in on what I think was the first movie about the story of the Crucifixion that I ever actually sat down and watched, Jesus Christ Superstar. The work of Andrew Lloyd Webber has made West End and Broadway theaters loads of money over the years, but his status as actually good at things has been a subject of much debate among musical theater people I know over the years. He writes these all singing (or nearly all singing) musicals, but he somehow manages to do it without writing that many actual songs. He finds a set of notes, and what would normally be dialogue tends to end being sung on a couple of different sets of notes for a couple of hours. There are some great, well-known songs in his work. “Memories” from Cats immediately springs to mind, and I would say “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from this show serves about the same purpose. Yet the random licks scattered throughout Jesus Christ Superstar and many of his other shows never fail to get stuck in my head.
You should know going in, this movie is a fairly faithful version from 1973 of a somewhat counter-culture-focused 1970 musical. That is, this is Jesus as brought to you by the same people who thought Hair was a good idea, a focus that you get far more in this movie than in most modern productions. The movie opens, interestingly, with a bunch of hippies riding a bus out into the Israeli desert and pulling out all the equipment and costumes they’ll need to put on a biblical production at an isolated ruin. The movie is mostly shot without sets, often amidst those ruins. As with many of the stage productions of the musical, the biblical story is punctuated by anachronisms beyond the rock-heavy style of the music. The Roman guards carry machine guns, and there’s at least one dramatic shot where Judas (Carl Anderson) is startled by a row of tanks coming over a ridge.
This is not an attempt to show the full life of Jesus (Ted Neeley), but rather focuses on the final week of his life. It received some criticism at the time from the Christian community for leaving Jesus’ divinity ambiguous, though this was later explained by lyricist Tim Rice as being because the story is told primarily through the point of view of Judas, who does not really believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Judas is always, for me, the most interesting character in the musical, but here that is magnified by the fact that Ted Neeley really doesn’t work for me in the title role. He’s really good at singing, don’t get me wrong, but he’s supposed to be a “superstar,” yet comes across as completely flat and uncharismatic. In 2018 we watched a live NBC version of the musical, with John Legend in the part of Jesus and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magadelene (Alice Cooper cameoed as King Herod), and I actually thought the whole thing worked way better than it does in this movie.
The cast was free of stars at the time of its release, many of the actors being brought in directly from the ongoing stage production. Both Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman (who plays Mary Magdalene) would have major pop hits in the next few years, but were unknowns at the time. Director Norman Jewison was long-established in Hollywood, and coming directly from another movie adaptation of a popular musical, Fiddler on the Roof. That movie shared actor Barry Dennen with the original stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar (he reprises his role as Pontius Pilate in the movie), and Dennen suggested to Jewison that he consider the musical for his next project. King Herod, meanwhile, is played by Zero Mostel’s son, Josh Mostel, who gets the great scene-stealing comic relief song (there seems to be one in every Webber musical). His lines include, “Jesus Christ/If you’re so cool/Walk across my swimming pool.”
One might be forgiven, based on his name and the fact that he directed Fiddler on the Roof, for assuming that Norman Jewison is, in fact, Jewish, but he is not, and in fact, both the play and the movie of Jesus Christ Superstar have come in for criticism over the years as possibly anti-semitic. In the same DVD-extra interview, Tim Rice says he thinks the accusations are “barmy” because the whole movie is about “a great Jewish leader,” but of course most of the villains are Jews, too. What Rice’s argument completely elides, of course, is that for most of the history of Christianity the fact that Jesus and his followers were also Jews gets ignored, and the idea that the Jews called for the execution of Jesus was emphasized. This movie not only makes no attempt to counteract that narrative, it features several scenes with the scheming Jewish priesthood, seemingly worried Jesus is going to ruin this for everybody. I don’t think Jesus calls himself a Jew in this, but the evil Caiaphas (Bob Bingham) sure does, while wearing a giant, very sinister black… hat? I guess it’s a hat. I guess my point is not that anyone involved is actually prejudiced but that we should all work to get outside of our point of view and that works of art aren’t only seen in the context the authors intended.
Despite the criticisms of the movie, Pope Paul VI reportedly loved it, telling Jewison that it would “bring more people around the world to Christianity than anything ever has before.” That prediction has not worked out, but, as evidenced by that 2018 production as well as ongoing revivals, the musical has endured. The Shows Must Go On YouTube channel, which if you don’t follow you should, posted another recent stage version for free viewing this weekend only. Tim Minchin plays Judas and Melanie C (aka “Scary Spice”) plays Mary Magdalene. You can check it out here if you’re interested.