Jesus Christ Superstar

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: Among the ruins, a group of actors recreate the last days of Jesus Christ, detailing his rise to glory and his betrayal to the priests by rogue disciple Judas Iscariot. From Judas’ point of view, however, the circus around Jesus is getting out of hand and needlessly messianic. And what kind of betrayal is it when the man to be betrayed appears fully aware, if not fully accepting, of his fate?

A bus pulls up at the historic city of Avdat and disgorges its passengers, a hippyish bunch of actors who proceed to get into gear and character. Roles established, Carl Anderson bursts into song as Judas, outraged that the movement set up by Ted Neeley’s Jesus has been hijacked not only by people who hail him as the New Messiah, but also by his unseemly love for Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman).

The roar of the crowd reaches the disquieted ears of priests Caiaphas and Annas (Bob Bingham and Kurt Yaghjian), and Caiaphas decides that Jesus must be eliminated; however, how to get hold of him through the surrounding disciples and crowds? Judas may provide the answer, though detention alone doesn’t get rid of Jesus; for neither Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) nor King Herod (Joshua Mostel) want to deal with him. Meanwhile, Jesus knows what’s coming but still questions why he has been chosen to redeem mankind.

You might imagine, when filming a musical, that if you get the music to sound as good as it can, you’ve more or less won the battle; and by extension, that Jesus Christ Superstar is a much better film than Ken Russell’s Tommy. Jewison’s film does get the music right; it’s left virtually intact from the concept album, feeling surprisingly, authentically rocky for Andrew Lloyd Webber and containing powerful songs in Heaven on Their Minds, Everything’s Alright, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, Simon Zealotes and the show-stopping title number, plus Jesus’ outstanding Gethsemane.

As with Evita, the linking recitative sections are weaker, but on the whole this is Lloyd Webber writing at his best, that is to say in his own style rather than pastiching others. The singing is strong too, Anderson possessing a fine, growling voice and Neeley a great falsetto, even if his tight vibrato won’t please everyone. Elliman, the original Magdalene from the 1970 concept album, fills the role with emotion and Bingham, Dennen (another original performer) and Larry Marshall as Simon Zealotes are all very effective.

Then there’s the controversy of the plot, which (of course) predates Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by decades. Tim Rice’s lyrics don’t focus specifically on the question of Jesus’ divinity, but they certainly raise the issue (‘No talk of God then, we called you a man’). More incendiary is the paradox of Judas’ betrayal: if Jesus had to die, then it must have been God’s will for someone to betray him – and therefore Judas was little more than a patsy (‘I’ve been used!’ he screams). Or perhaps Jesus is the one being used? For many, many reasons*, I don’t propose to have the theological debate here; what I will say is that Jesus Christ Superstar intelligently asks provocative questions in an accessible and entertaining format.

Or at least, it should. I come back to the assertion that you get the music right and the rest of the film follows – it’s simply not true. It was an interesting ploy to film Jesus Christ Superstar on rudimentary sets not far from where the biblical action took place, but on the screen it looks for the most part like a scattering of people lost in the middle of the desert in curious outfits (what are those bulb things on the priests’ heads?). It’s also fairly obvious that the actors are not over-familiar with being filmed, because the passion in the voices is not always entirely reflected in the face and body motions – Anderson in particular has a strange habit of flinging his hands behind him like a ski-jumper.

There’s a slight disconnect between the soundtrack and the visuals, the former having been created (one assumes) for the latter to follow. Worse, there are simply not enough visuals to fill the time, so Jewison (who, with Melvyn Bragg, has the gall to take a screenplay credit) is forced to rely on slo-motion and freeze-frame gimmicks while dancers fling themselves about in the hippy-dippy style of Hair or Godspell.

And while there are occasional nods to modern (local?) troubles – a few tanks, fighter planes and the selling of guns and hand grenades in the temple, the significance of these is never explained or put into context. My abiding memory is that of Our Lord pushing over two postcard racks (or possibly the same one, twice).

What counts most against Jesus Christ Superstar is that it simply doesn’t work as a piece of storytelling. Jesus is far too passive, especially during the second half where he is carted around from Caiaphas to Pilate to Herod and finally back to Pilate. He’s reduced to being a stationary figure who sings occasionally, but he’s far from the only one. Jewison’s efforts to liven things up include the ghastly mega-camp treatment of King Herod’s Song, Mostel’s mediocre singing only adding to the scene’s many woes (Jesus wisely stands at a distance, looking vaguely pained but reassured that the song’s only three minutes long). Even the ballsy title track verges on the borders of camp and kitsch, saved only by Judas’ throaty vocals.

Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar has some purpose, a record of the show as it might have looked in the 1970s. It’s not, however, a film that lives long in the memory and is unlikely to win many converts to the musical. Its lasting legacy will be its soundtrack, which brings across the passion of the piece without the dilution of the bland and often misguided visuals.

NOTES: Most of them involving the phrase ‘blind ignorance’.

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