Directed by: Norman Jewison
Music by: Tim Rice, Andrew Lloyd Webber
Starring: Ted Neeley, Yvonne Elliman, Carl Anderson, Barry Dennen, Philip Toubus, the principal from Billy Madison
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Are we still giving credit to huge movie studios that don't love us back?: Universal Pictures
There is no great shortage of biblical film adaptations; it's called the greatest story ever told for a reason. There are varying degrees of success here; one can quickly point to either version of The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur as useful and worthwhile works of art, while Wholly Moses! and Noah's Ark are wastes of time. It's a tricky balancing act; you've got to respect both the belief system that's been around for a couple millennia lest you upset one of the biggest religious movements in the world, but you've got to commit to the art form as well lest you disappoint the general moviegoer. Right about the 1970s, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had a really bright idea: how about a musical that portrays Jesus Christ as some sort of funk rock superstar?
Really, were they that far off? Jesus was a real phenomenon in his day, and his disciples weren't his only die-hard fans. As to whether the narrative works, it's widely accepted that this film is largely uneven and certainly not going to please everyone who watches it. It's not even immediately apparent what the film's purpose is, but in the end I'll make the argument that it's more than a bowl of sugar for breakfast.
The first time I saw this was on an Easter Sunday early in my life, sometime after the morning Mass. Dad put it on for my brother and me instead of Jesus of Nazareth, which was probably the right call. It's one of the first times I remember him explaining how a movie works, what they were trying to get across, and how it tied into my religion and worldview. I liked it enough to buy it on DVD, and I watched it almost obsessively back in high school - it's a surprisingly educational motion picture for a prospective film buff. For this review, I'm just gonna go song by song and capture the feelings I had while watching.
Almost as soon as the movie kicks off, one recognizes how excellent the music is, and how the musical uses various themes repeated throughout the movie to its advantage. The music is about as love-it-or-hate-it as you can get; personally, it's exactly the kinda music I can get into, but others (like the owner of this blog) can't stand. Your mileage may vary, but it's better than most musicals I've listened to. I think the performers this time around are much better than in the Broadway version. That's a somewhat hot take considering how Broadway had Ian Gillan (the lead singer of Deep Purple, one of the best singers I've ever heard) and Murray Head, but Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson just do a better job all around. Yvonne Elliman was retained, and the movie is better for it.
The basic framing device is that this is a group of American performers who came to put on a performance (for no audience, and with no visible backing band) in the Holy Land of a really controversial musical. This really only comes about in the very beginning and the very end, but it's kinda helpful to show a) how long the message of Christ has lasted and b) this could be just about anyone. It's also useful for explaining why the sets, outfits, and props are the way they are in the movie. Right about the time the cast starts unloading assault rifles from their groove bus, it's immediately apparent why people love this movie, why people protested this movie, and why people have trouble taking this movie seriously. The movie was made by a group of amateurs, and it shows in a number of scenes, but cinematographer Douglas Slocombe wasn't one of them. His fantastic work, subtle in some cases and ostentatious in other shots, is excellent at building the story and showcasing the drama in the work. He later went on to do the first three movies of the Indiana Jones trilogy, which are pretty good from what I've heard.
Sure hope they use that thing responsiblyHeaven on Their Minds
Very easily one of the best songs in Jesus Christ Superstar, this is another bit of controversy, but it's important to have a song like this to let the audience know exactly what the movie is all about. Y'see, there are a number of "villains" in the passion of the Christ: Caiaphas and the pharisees, Pontius Pilate, John Lennon, and obviously Judas Iscariot. The musical makes it clear right from the onset that it will do its utmost to be as fair as possible to all involved, and to be at least somewhat sympathetic to the characters who have long been vilified throughout history. Even if it's not entirely sympathetic, you can at least tell what Judas is dealing with, and what all his hang-ups are throughout his song.
What's the Buzz
One of the things I like that the movie does is to portray the political struggles many of the people around Jesus were faced with in their days; the disciples were faced with more than just the salvation of humanity, but also political repression from Rome, and they wanted Jesus to lend more than a spiritual hand. It's also pretty obvious how 70's this is when listening to it, dig-that-funky-beat, etc. Let's appreciate that we moved beyond this sort of fashion, but not this kind of enthusiasm
Strange Thing Mystifying
It's debatable as to whether Judas is the main character; I'd still argue Jesus is the protagonist here, but they're almost treated as equals here. They both make good points in their argument, and it's the kind of debate that I kinda enjoy.
What's my guy on the left doing?
Then We Are Decided
This song was added specifically for the movie, as a bit of clarification as to what the pharisees were thinking when they decided to eliminate Jesus. In the musical, Caiaphas is left as an unredeemable villain, but this song makes it clear that he's conflicted, and has obligations to his people, and is only doing what he thinks is right. That doesn't make it right, of course, but it adds depth to a character, and any song that does that will earn a bit of praise from me. It does kinda leave Annas as a scheming vizier, though.
Definitely one of my favorite songs here - it's probably the sexiest song one can do in a tale of the Christ, by which I mean it's got dignity and sensuality. Yvonne Elliman was the perfect choice for this role (before she started doing meth), and her voice couldn't be replaced by anyone else here. Again, Judas and Jesus both raise valid points in their argument, and it shows how Judas' philosophical differences have reached a breaking point. One of the most dramatic moments in the film occurs at the end of the song, where Judas and Jesus clasp hands then let go and drift apart. It was the first time I could tell what a character was thinking without them telling me; i.e., each knows what will become of the other - but not of what will becomes of themselves.
This Jesus Must Die
This is where Caiaphas is forced to convince the other pharisees that they're going to have take out Jesus on their own, and it's one of the better ones in the movie. I don't know why Bob Bingham decided to wear a steamrolled Rubik's cube on his torso, but I guess that was just the fashion back then. I've always wondered if people liked to dress up like this, hang out on scaffolding, and bang their hands on the pipes like a bunch of rowdy schoolboys.
Perhaps the most forgettable song in the entire movie, it was still a pretty neat decision to have the camera freeze on Jesus' face when his followers ask whether he would die for them. The seriousness of the moment is somewhat diminished by the Looney Tunes marimba in the background. Take it easy for a hot second, Ruth Underwood.
Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem
Now this is a showstopped. This is Be Our Guest, from Beauty and the Beast. It's about as useful to the story, too (which is to say, not particularly). I just love experiencing all the time and effort that goes into something like this; look at the athleticism of the dancers, the complexity of the choreography, and the sheer unrestrained energy of Larry Marshall. This also led to my dad explaining the subtler aspects, like the presence of the Roman guards signifying the approaching political dispute that will end in tragedy, Judas fearing the growing hero worship. What if all these people are wrong about him? Ultimately, they are wrong: this is a song about missing the point.
I'm one of the few Christians I know to find Pilate to be a sympathetic character, and this is one of the songs that convinced me. Pontius Pilate was a man caught in a very difficult situation, and succumbed to the people in an effort to do what he thought would be the safest thing for everyone (particularly himself). The movie never really explains what the deal is with his female companion, though.
So far this movie has taken a pretty fast and loose approach with the final days of Jesus Christ, but that's alright. I don't mind the slight modernization of historical stories, as long as it's mature, carefully thought out, and useful in some capacity. The movie then decides to throw in gyrating prostitutes, grenades, and honest-to-Ted Neeley gatling gun. It's a pretty jaw-dropping sight, and not for the intended reasons. It's then perfectly understandable that Jesus has such an outburst, and it's nice to have a movie where a powerful person absolutely believes what he espouses, and is not some corrupt lech who's willing to wet the beak just to make a few silver coins on the side. Mr. Pataki thought the follow-up songs featured Jawas.
Don't remember that in the gospels.
I Don't Know How to Love Him
It's pretty obvious why this is one of the most well-known songs from the musical; not only is Yvonne Elliman at the absolute top of her game, but the song is thoughtful, touching, and emotional. It's got that same thing that kinda bugs me about some of the songs in the musical, where they were clearly written so they could apply to any subject, thus giving it broader appeal to artists interested in covers, but I've warmed up to it over the years.
Damned for All Time/Blood Money
Right when I hear that distorted guitar, I know I'm gonna have a great time. You thought the grenades were a bit much in The Temple? How about a set of tanks chasing Judas through the desert? Even my dad couldn't explain that one to me. He was quick to let me know that no, there were no tanks in the Bible. I checked and it turns out he was right.
The Last Supper
This is a complicated one; personally, I feel it's an extremely underrated song. It's the emotional climax of the film, with Judas and Jesus both unloading on each other; it feels more like the dissolution of a friendship than a betrayal of humanity's savior. This is all the more difficult to pull off, because the movie hasn't ever truly shown Judas and Jesus in a friendly manner. I find myself listening to this song more than any other from the soundtrack.
Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)
Intended to be the big solo piece for whoever plays Jesus, this song is a surprisingly weak spot, even though scripturally there's not too many problems here. There's no way anyone could've possibly known what was going through Jesus' mind when he realized he would be crucified, and the insertion of the multiple depictions of His death is somehow dramatically effective at impressing upon Him the salvation He would bring about. My qualms are primarily melodic; even with the exciting moments, it's just not as great as even some of the throwaway songs here. I can't even blame what's going on during the song (just Jesus climbing a mountain and yelling at the sky). Pilate's Dream is one of my favorites and it's just Barry Dennen wandering around whichever nondescript ruins were assigned to him that day.
A shockingly good one here; it starts with Philip Toubus (who, with a name like that, unsurprisingly went on to become a prolific adult film director) and the other disciples awaking up and reprising What's the Buzz? and getting ready to defend their leader. Shame they don't actually have swords, because Jesus tells them to drop their swords. I know Ted Neeley covers well by saying this to a Roman centurion (who is armed), but this was clearly supposed to be directed to his disciples, who made the distinctly impolite move to cut off a Roman's ear (big party foul in the Middle East back then). Then it proceeds to show Jesus being accosted by the people as he's taken in custody to Caiaphas, and everyone holds their hands up to his face like they're holding invisible portable recording devices. I guess it's supposed to be a critique of the media, but as Judas will say later on, "Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication."
I don't know why I like this song so much, it's practically a throwaway song, it's a recycled melody (remember Strange Thing Mystifying?) and it's not like anyone was begging to see more of Philip Toubus. I guess I just like their voices, whatever Yvonne Elliman is doing with her face, and that guy's sweet purple tank top.
Pilate and Christ
I don't have anything useful to say about this song, besides Christ uttering history's very first "no u". Pilate sends Jesus off to King Herod, who, if I recall correctly, was the guy who originally sent out people to kill this king of the Jews before he had even been born, acting on a prophecy (this is one of the reasons Jesus was born in secret). Sounds like a real evil jerk, I can only imagine what his song is like.
King Herod's Song
Hoo boy, where do I even start? The movie's tone flits back and forth between serious dramatic portrayals of scripture and...whatever this is supposed to be. Don't get me wrong, it was one of my favorite songs when I first saw it, and it's a kinda catchy beat. It just misses the entire point of Herod, and is a complete departure from the (somewhat) serious tone of (most of) the rest of the movie. The choreography is pretty damn good, but I can't get over a movie giving the principal from Billy Madison his own song - shirtless, I might add.
Could We Start Again Please?
This is a song that was fairly obviously added in to lengthen the movie's run time, but I don't have too much against it. It's a decent song, and it shows how much Mary and the disciples lament the end of not just their following, but their friendship. Unfortunately, it's another one of those songs where it could be about any subject, and it would still make sense. I guess I just like a little specificity in my music. I can't get over Philip Toubus' name. It's too perfect.
It would be a really cheap out to just bring up the Batman theme again, so instead I'll focus on the intensity of this song. It's not just the beginning; the part right after the quiet section is excellent in showing how Judas' mind is swimming, how he feels like he's the one who's been used - not by the pharisees, but by God Himself. The sound the guitar makes still sends shivers up and down my spine. I still don't know how Norman Jewison accomplished the effect of Judas hanging himself.
Trial Before Pilate
This is it. The big one. The climax of the entire picture. I gotta admit, this is a tough one to watch - but I mean that in a good way. It's not cheesy or corny or anything, the music is excellently written and performed, and it shows exactly what the main political dispute going on at the time was, and why Pilate is stuck between several rocks and a hard place. The 39 lashes, though, are shockingly hard to watch. I remember sitting through The Passion of the Christ, and that was pretty rough, but one of the things the movie never shows is anyone reacting realistically to Jesus's injuries. Ted Neeley's own mother couldn't watch this scene. I still don't know what's up with Pilate's female companion(s).
Look, now there's more of 'em!Superstar
This is a great song, and it's obvious why it was one of the lead singles, but I don't know why it's interspersed with the road to crucifixion. These scenes are remarkably difficult to watch, and it's a shame because Superstar is one of the best songs in the movie, and you can tell how much fun everyone is having. Personally, I haven't got anything to say about the crucifixion scene. It's almost exactly what you'd expect. In the end, it's nice to see everyone get on the bus in their street clothes, adding another element of humanity. One of my favorite parts is seeing the shepherd at the end - who was completely unplanned and unexpected by the crew, by the way.
Ultimately, I find myself revisiting this movie repeatedly. It's one I can never get sick of. The framing device is a bit odd, but it's no different than the bizarre ones found in other Hollywood musicals. The tone is wildly inconsistent, ranging from 70's camp to crushing seriousness/the-weight-of-it-all. That doesn't make Jesus Christ Superstar bad, it just makes it weird, like the class clown who talks about his troubled life at home with far too much seriousness...and speaks entirely in song.
As I said above, I'm not entirely sure what the film's purpose is. I know what the thesis is; the final days of Jesus' life were times of doubt and alienation, yet love, and the people around him were not mythical beasts intent to hurt humanity, but understandable, rational people who had their own points of view and were sometimes even pitiable. The purpose, though, is a little bit harder to catch. Jesus Christ Superstar is not exactly likely to convert any nonbeliever to Christianity. I'm pretty sure Tim Rice wrote the musical from the perspective of an atheist, but he's not exactly convincing anyone that Christ wasn't divine with a movie like this, either. I don't think I need to recite the Nicene Creed to let you guys know that I come from a place of bias or anything, but the likelihood is that a lot of people see this the same way I do: a decently respectful, if at times a bit ludicrous, portrayal of the final days of Jesus Christ.
I'll see you all at church on Sunday.