Film Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

This Easter Sunday, I went to the Rio to see Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar and it was one of the most memorable movie-going experiences of my life. It’s a movie that, much like Star Wars, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember and viewed countless times, but seeing it for the first time on a big screen with an audience of enthusiastic fans was electrifying.

First and foremost, the music is awesome. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodies and Tim Rice’s lyrics are epic, intimate, haunting, joyful, fascinating and forever singable, all of which are in service to a slightly strange movie with very impressive visuals. It seems predicated upon the idea that a bunch of theatrical performers decide to stage the rock opera in the middle of the Israeli desert using a funny mix of props and costumes that range from period-accurate rough cloth robes and sandals to chrome-helmeted, tank-top wearing, Uzi-carrying Roman soldiers, and all of the sets are either ruins, landscapes or caves.

Amazingly ahead of its time in casting

The imagery in the film is really terrific, as shot by Douglas Slocombe who went on to do the first three Indiana Jones films, among others. The composition, the framing and the camera movement are all wonderfully conceived and executed, which is to say nothing of the amazing choreography on display. The performers in this film are incredible athletes when you look at the kinds of moves they are doing in the hot desert conditions. Most impressive of all is the diversity of players on display, with a white Jesus (Ted Neely), black Judas (Carl Anderson) and Hawaiian Mary (Yvonne Elliman) surrounded by a rainbow of supporting cast. For a movie made over 40 years ago, it is amazingly ahead of its time in casting and it’s stunning that it has taken the rest of Hollywood this long to catch up.

My favourite sequence of all is, of course, the title number, which they save for the end. Carl Anderson coming down from heaven dressed in tassled whites on a crane to be joined by a host of dancing angels is something indescribably fun, especially with the accompanying track. I love the joyful playfulness of the lyrics “Buddha, was he where it’s at, is he where you are?/Could Mohammed move a mountain or was that just P.R.?” presented with a huge production number. It may appear to be superficially irreverent, but I think Jesus Christ Superstar is closer to the humanity and the truth of the story than any stuffy Sunday school sermon.

Sympathetic portrayal of Judas

I am not a christian, but I am a humanist, and this particular rendition of the Jesus story is the most humanistic and the only one I can really enjoy. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s the humility of each character, how everyone seems to have flaws in some way or another, even Jesus whose doubts about his fate ironically coming out of a kind of determined fatalism. It’s really the story’s sympathetic portrayal of Judas that has always stood out to me, and I think that’s why I’ve always had a hard time with the traditional image of him as the worst of humanity. I think maybe even at a very young age I could smell how judgemental organized religion tends to be.

In any case, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favourite films of all-time and seeing it on a big screen with an audience made seeing it at the Rio one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. I loved every minute of it.

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