Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Written by Melvyn Bragg & Norman Jewison
Directed by Norman Jewison
I hate Jesus Christ Superstar. This is mainly because of Dame Sir Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber (shout out to my Comedy Bang Bang Fans out there). I cannot stand this man’s musical theater work. I don’t like Cats or Phantom or Joseph or any of the stuff he’s ever made. It feels grossly over-produced and gaudy in a way that is a complete turn-off to me. Jesus Christ Superstar (or JCS) has not aged well and feels like a relic of the 1960s/70s hippie movement. Even then, it doesn’t feel genuine, but a co-opted facsimile of the hippies. I don’t think the film does much to redeem the musical. It looks fine, but it is certainly not one of Jewison’s best.
If you have grown up in any pocket of the Westernized world, then you know the story of Jesus. This adds some bookending with a group of hippy actors driving out to the desert in a bus to stage this performance. The musical puts more of a spotlight on Judas (Carl Andersen). Judas thinks Jesus (Ted Neely) has been caught up in his growing following and has forgotten about the ideas of revolution to overthrow the Romans. Judas goes on to be the stand-in for many of the run-ins with hypocrites from the Bible, proclaiming Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) is unfit for Jesus to be around. The priests worry about Jesus’s movement, Judas collaborates with them, Jesus gets caught & crucified, yada yada yada.
Having recently rewatched The Last Temptation of Christ and now this, I just have to say I don’t think the story of Jesus is a compelling narrative. Maybe it’s from having grown up hearing it repeatedly from Kindergarten through college at a Christian university, but I find the story of Jesus boring as a narrative. If you personally get some sort of spiritual fulfillment from it, then fantastic, but I am talking about it in terms of a story. It always feels like whoever is writing the story and playing Jesus does everything they can to make him such a blank slate of a character. He has no tangible personality and seems like a real bore to hang around. He is never portrayed as enjoying what he does. It feels like how Zack Snyder presents Superman, just moping around burdened by the sacrifice he must make. Messiahs & Holy Men just don’t make for compelling protagonists. Flawed characters are far more interesting and illuminating about ourselves. Jesus is so underwritten to the point that he might as well just not appear in the movie, just have other people talking about him.
One of the biggest problems I have had with American Christianity (yes, I know Weber is a Brit) is the pathetic clamoring to remain relevant in the wake of modernism. To do this, they commodify their belief system by creating Christian Contemporary Music (a literal hate crime on the human auditory system IMO) and building megaplex churches with gift shops inside. The Catholic Church isn’t much better with eye-rolling over-the-top theatricality. I personally like spiritual beliefs that are more primitive and ritualized. Part of the experience is about disconnecting from the material world, right? I don’t see how making Rock N Roll Jesus helps people achieve spiritual enlightenment. Pope Paul VI apparently approved of this film when it was screened for him, stating, “Mr. Jewison, not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity than anything ever has before.” If you are interested in filling the coffers, then yeah, mass media projects like this are great.
Hilariously, like fanboys, the Christian community at the time apparently nitpicked details, angrily “Well actually” -ing changes made to the story, condensing characters and events in the gospels. They honestly should be glad anyone cares about adapting and re-adapting this boring story over and over. I think Islam has something for not allowing Mohammed to be portrayed in art; it certainly has turned Jesus into a void, someone we are told over and over was “god made into a man” but is never shown as being much of a human being in media. As a result, movies like Jesus Christ Superstar appear to be lively, but they are a veneer covering a story devoid of human reality. In other words, I like Fiddler better.