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.
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.
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.