Monday, April 5, 2021

Movie Review: "Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973)

 Jesus Christ Superstar

Director: Norman Jewison

Producer: Norman Jewison, Robert Stigwood

Screenplay: Melvyn Bragg, Norman Jewison

Based on: "Jesus Christ Superstar" by Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber

Cinematographer: Douglas Slocombe

Music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Starring: Ted Neeley as Jesus

Production company: Universal Pictures

Country: United States

Initial release: June 26, 1973

Run Time: 106 minutes

Adapted from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Broadway rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar recounts the last days of Jesus Christ (Ted Neeley) from the perspective of Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson), his betrayer. As Jesus' following increases, Judas begins to worry that Jesus is falling for his own hype, forgetting the principles of his teachings and growing too close to the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman). After Jesus has an outburst in a temple, Judas turns on him.

In the Gospels, Jesus is portrayed as knowing very clearly who he is, and is more interested in how others view him in light of his teachings and miracles, with many of the most faithful understanding that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. In Jesus Christ Superstar, however, we have a Jesus who perhaps thought he knew who he was but now seems a bit unsure of himself, while everyone else around him is unsure as well. The only thing Jesus seems to know about himself is what he is not: a revolutionary, an earthly king, a power hungry charismatic personality; and he also knows that he must die. I believe this is the reason why there is no Resurrection scene after the Crucifixion, and why in the end the characters of Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot are waiting at the bus to see if the character who played Jesus is coming, but never does, and instead the final shot is just an empty cross on a hill. The film seems to be telling the viewer to come to your own conclusion as to who Jesus thinks he was, and who you think Jesus is, and what this all means, without giving an answer. This fits the mood of the time: challenge any and every truth and authority in sight and come up with your own truth based on the authority of your own hermeneutic. In a way, it's sort of like reading the Bible without anyone there to guide you with answers, just questions.

Keep in mind, too, that this is a story-within-a-story. It is the story of a troupe of actors putting on a passion play somewhere in the desert. Therefore, the viewer needs to determine perhaps whether the "real" story here is about Jesus or about an actor who plays Jesus. This will then influence how one watches this film and subsequently how one evaluates it.

In determining how one evaluates this film, one must also consider that Jesus Christ Superstar was originally only a collection of musical numbers created by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber. Then it became a full-blown musical stage performance. Only later did it become a film. To move a musical with no spoken words from the stage to the desert is a very difficult task. Cinema generally calls for depth of character, to supply more information for the viewer, and whereas gaps are common on stage, they are much more evident on film.

To drive the story, Jesus Christ Superstar does what previous movies about Jesus did, going back to the silent era: to concentrate on the characters most open to creative license. These are both Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene. In Jesus Christ Superstar, these two characters are polar opposites in how they respond to Jesus in his final days, and they are even given the best songs to express their feelings. Though biblically inaccurate, it is what drives the story.

Often have I heard people tell me that Jesus Christ Superstar is their favorite film about Jesus. They love the music, the costumes, the energy, and it conjures up a nostalgia that evokes memories of a freer and more rebellious time. Perhaps also they prefer a Jesus who is more accessible, more personal, more human, and certainly more fallible than the one in vogue among traditional creedal Christians. The Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar can be seen as a populist Jesus, but I see him more as an underground Jesus, similar in many ways to Rocky Horror Picture Show, just not as fun. Jesus Christ Superstar asks a lot of questions, without giving answers, and it is you that needs to come up with the answers. This is why any reaction to this movie is valid and positive.

As far as the music is concerned, this is what really matters. Some have compared the rock opera to Handel's Messiah, or as a more sophisticated version of The Who's Tommy, mixed with the counter-culture elements of Hair, and seems to have inspired David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Rocky Horror Picture Show. In other words, the music is brilliant, and this is primarily why Jesus Christ Superstar has stood the test of time. Through Jesus Christ Superstar, famous biblical characters, including Jesus himself, become mournful glam rock stars who resemble the "typical" American youth, fed up with authorities, government and war, who want to know what to make of Jesus and find meaning in what seems a meaningless world. Just like the Jesus of this film, we are all in a crisis, marginalized, trying to discover our identity. And even though Jesus becomes a superstar, he is weary of it all, even telling the lepers who find hope in him only to just go away and leave him alone.

When all is said and done, this Jesus film is not really about Jesus, but about you and me and our response to the big questions in life, including who Jesus is to the world and to me personally. For this reason, when seen from this perspective, I would rate Jesus Christ Superstar out of a score from one to ten, a 7.1, with big props going to the music. If I rated it based on being a Jesus film, it would be much lower.