Jesus Christ Superstar

Movie Information

In Brief: It's the Asheville Film Society's slightly late Easter offering — Norman Jewison's Jesus Christ Superstar, a film that has kind of fallen by the wayside over the years. I'm not sure why. Most complaints usually center on the casting of Ted Neely as Jesus — despite the fact that man has made a living performing the show onstage ever since. The complaints are a little unfair, since not only is his Jesus supposed to relate to the era of the film, but he's really playing an actor — or a rock musician — playing Jesus. What has really been forgotten, though, is what a daring, edgy piece of filmmaking this was — and is. I suspect the fact that it was made by such a Hollywood establishment figure as Jewison (his last picture had been Fiddler on the Roof) plays into this. While he was hardly anyone's idea of a hip filmmaker, he and screenwriter Melvyn Bragg (The Music Lovers) took no end of risks here. Not only was the casting unusual in its collection of what looked like a gaggle of hippies, but the lack of realistic sets and costumes and the inclusion of modern weaponry (including tanks and jet fighter planes) were striking, and they remain startling. Some of the ideas work, some don't and a few are just plain dreadful, but it's all fearless and fascinating.
Score:

Genre: Musical Drama
Director: Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night)
Starring: Ted Neely, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham, Josh Mostel
Rated: G

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Jesus Christ Superstar has always been something of a lightning rod — in every incarnation. As a rock opera/concept album, it was denounced in many quarters for not being “rock,” however that’s defined. The stage production made that worse — and brought in theater critics to mock its minimalist staging and dramatic value. About the same time, word got out that composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice were…atheists, which resulted in the usual disavowal of the record and the requiste album burnings. Then came Norman Jewison’s film, which was probably about a year too late in getting here, since the “Jesus Freak” movement was cooling down a bit by then. It also upped the minimalist ante by being staged in ancient ruins with few, if any, period costumes — and worse yet, dragged in tanks, machine guns, and fighter planes. It baffled some and angered others — often for very silly reasons. It did make money, but it didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel. Producer Robert Stigwood fared better with that when he co-produced Ken Russell’s Tommy a couple of years later — at which point Universal rushed some of lousiest, most chewed-up prints imaginable of Jesus Christ Superstar back into theaters in an attempt to cash in. How they did financially, I don’t know, but I doubt they won over many fans.

 

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I’ve long suspected that one of the reasons the film was unsatisfying for some viewers lay in the fact that the miracles — talked about, but never seen — are given little attention. Plus — and this may be the key — this is a Christ story that ends without a resurrection. (There may be a very vague, almost imperceptible hint of it in the film’s last shot.) But this is more a political than religious film in many respects. It’s a film about revolution, and it’s a film about the personal relationships between Jesus (Ted Neely) and his followers — especially Judas (Carl Anderson) and Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman). It’s about the duplicity of a few Jewish priests (which got anti-Semitism brought into play), about the decadence of Herod (Josh Mostel), and about the guilt-drenched Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen). I really don’t see that the film is any more anti-Semitic than most versions of the story. In fact, it seems more a statement on mankind’s amazing ability to elevate people to — in this case — rockstar status and then just as easily tear them down. If anything, the staging of “King Herod’s Song” more smacks of homophobia than anything — and I don’t recall anyone complaining about that.

 

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The film is often brilliant. Any time Carl Anderson is onscreen, it truly soars. It also contains the best use of a freeze-frame — on Jesus when the lyrics ask, “Hey, JC, JC, would you die for me?” — I have ever seen. It’s to the point and chilling. (Jewison soon blunts this by using other, utterly pointless freeze-frames a scene or two later.) On balance, Jewison does more right than wrong — the painting inserts in “Gesthemane” are wonderful. On the other hand, the platinum afro wigs in the film’s big production number are…embarrassing, and moving the star-cross filters in time with the music is one of the dumbest moves in the history of cinema. Whoever decided to add a new song — “Could We Start Again Please?” — may have had and Original Song Oscar in mind (it didn’t work), but it adds nothing to the film. But these are minor issues when all is said and I still believe that the film’s intense — but simple — depiction of the scourging of Christ here is far more emotionally powerful than all of Mel Gibson’s blood and flying chunks of flesh in his Passion of the Christ (2004).

The Asheville Film Society will screen Jesus Christ Superstar Tuesday, April 7, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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12 thoughts on “Jesus Christ Superstar

  1. Harry Long

    I may have to get around to revisiting this some day. I disliked it when I saw it on its original release – the reasons are all mentioned in your review. They may have blinded me to the good that you find in it. For Christ films I prefer Passolini and Scorcese…

    • Ken Hanke

      I prefer The Ruling Class, if it comes to that. Have to admit I have never made it throught Scorsese’s Christ movie, though I burst out laughing every time the animals talk — and every time Harvey “Yo, Jesus!” Keitel speaks.

      • Dino

        If it comes to that, LIFE OF BRIAN for me. Will have to revisit JCS again.

      • Dino

        If it comes to that, LIFE OF BRIAN for me. Will have to revisit JCS again. Also, completely agree with you about Scorcese’s LAST TEMPTATION. Try the novel, though. It’s a drug trip of a read.

    • Ken Hanke

      Yes, Edwin cited it in the comments on Do You Believe? — where it mostly fell on deaf ears and blind eyes.

  2. leonard pollack

    I much preferred the play on B’dway. Got to know the director Tom O’Horgan and the total original cast. Knowing of O’Horgan’s admiration for The Devils and Ken, I introduced them . I think it was during their visit to NYC for an exibt of Gaudier’s work at the MOMA. We were invited to see Tom’s new musical Extravaganza ,DUDE, while still in preview. The total show was performed on roller skates with the theatre designed with floating bridges ove the audience for the skating. The show when it opened flopped but was quite a spectacle.

    • leonard pollack

      Carl Anderson was a sweet heart. Taken far to young. RIP.

    • sally sefton

      I agree that this works much better on stage than film. I like some of the outrageous choices for theatricality sake, but it just works better in three dimensions. I have been involved in an outdoor production of this and it sold out and seemed to be well received. Of course we were picketed, which did wonders for ticket sales.

    • sally sefton

      Well…it works off, off, off broadway as well. But I am not sure how it would sell now.
      We are producing Evita this summer, but I am afraid to hear what you and your fellow Andrew Lloyd Webber enthusiasts would have to say about that show.

      • Ken Hanke

        Bear in mind, I am a film person, not a theatre person. It’s a completely different mindset. Evita, however, I actually saw on Broadway — mostly because I was in NY at the time Ken Russell was still going to make the film of it. I don’t hate it, but I’m not crazy about it. It’s rare that I like minimalist staging. I like Jesus Christ Superstar and Phantom. The only ones I actively dislike are Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and Cats.

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