"You have set them all on fire. They think they've found the new Messiah. And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong...."
Norman Jewison may be one of the most talented movie industry men to have never won a coveted Oscar. He's worked with amazing actors like Denzel Washington, Danny Aiello, Nicolas Cage and even Sydney Poitier. When you browse through his filmography you will find films of many different genres that were shot in a various number of styles, yet I almost guarantee that you'd be surprised to see his name attached to a project as ambitious as 1973's Jesus Christ Superstar.
The movie is a new-age telling of possibly the oldest story that we all know - the life of Christ, but the approach is far from conventional. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber joined forces in the late 1960s and put together a concept album that was bound to be controversial. The music in this "rock opera" follows the story of Jesus and the Disciples (more so only Judas) as they arrive in Jerusalem with everything playing out from palms to the Crucifixion. Of course, subject matter of this magnitude was bound to eventually make it's way to the Broadway stage and inevitably into movie form. The project fell into Jewison's hands when one of the actors in The Fiddler on the Roof [Barry Dennen - who also plays Pontius Pilot in JCS] suggested during filming that he take a listen to the aforementioned album. The rest is movie history.
The movie itself is actually pretty darn impressive - especially when you think about all of the work the crew was undoubtedly put through during production. Jesus Christ Superstar was filmed on location in Israel which gave the crew the opportunity to film gorgeous long-shots of a few of the oldest landmarks in world history. The heat alone must have been hard to bear, but still every shot in the film glimmers as if the deserts of Israel were not totally barren. Jewison's direction seems to have allowed the cast (many of which were from the original stage production) to have fun and be light with the subject matter; perhaps this is what endorsed the film's contradictory feel. Jewison also spearheaded the idea of using several intentional anachronisms - which for some unknown (and uncommon) reason make the subject matter seem more meaningful. I've been told before that the only way to understand the arts and imagery of the early 1970s is to have lived through it.
Ted Neeley give us a likable Jesus Christ, but also one that feels more human than almost any other seen on film. As it gets closer and closer to the finale we see Jesus' confidence starting to erode. Jesus starts to get nervous and afraid of his growing celebrity, but his weariness is only noticed by Judas (Carl Anderson). Many people did not like how sympathetic the film made Judas seem - his betrayal was presented as more of a favor to the Savior than a traditional betrayal. This unrest is fair, but the film never promised to be an exact interpretation of the Gospel. It is more concerned with the idea of Jesus Christ of Nazareth being the first ever worldly superstar and how his celebrity eventually gets out of hand.
Of course, like with any religious movie, that was not the only controversy. Many wondered why Judas was the only African-American, and in the time of radical civil right debates it makes sense that people would wonder about the casting. Those concerns, at least for me, are quelled by Anderson's brilliant performance and hyper-powerful tenor vocals. I am sure that ANY musical theatre lover would be quick to inform you of just how difficult the music in this production is to conquer, yet Anderson never flinches.
All entertainment is allowed a certain amount of creative license and though we all know (or should know) that the Jews are not really responsible for Jesus' death, I also have no problem with the movie going that direction. Remember, some people don't even believe the story is true...so let's not waste time worrying about all the particulars. Jesus Christ Superstar, if nothing else, is an opportunity for pure escapism. Even the most tranquil musical numbers have a driving force behind them. None of the numbers ever seem too choreographed, but rather the camera is simply intruding into the Savior of Mankind's most personal moments....set to music...
Jesus Christ Superstar: B+