From Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943):
Joseph Cotten- "How was church, Charlie? Did you count the house? Turn anybody away?"
Teresa Wright- "No, room enough for everyone."
Cotten- "Well, I'm glad to hear that. The show's been running such a long time I thought maybe attendance might be falling off."
When it comes to movies based on the final days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, Hollywood has been running a near-nonstop show on the subject since 52 year-old H.B. Warner portrayed the screen's first grandfatherly Jesus in Cecil B. DeMille's 1927 silent classic, King of Kings. Since then, the movie industry has cranked out a new Jesus film every couple of years or so. Sometimes just to make use of new technological advancements (sound, color, Cinemascope), other times, merely to keep in step with the times, theologically speaking.
Thus it's safe to say that by 1973, when the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar was ultimately adapted for the screen (it opened on Broadway in 1971), no one involved harbored any illusions that audiences would be flocking to the film eager to find out how it all ends.
The major selling-point of Jesus Christ Superstar was not the story, per se, but its telling. This was to be the screen's first all-singing, all-dancing Jesus, and its daring, once-controversial, "hook" was to have the Passion Play told (with a decidedly youthful slant) from the perspective of, and in sympathy with, the apostle Judas. In Jesus Christ Superstar Judas sees Jesus not as a God, but merely a mortal man guilty of believing his own publicity. What distinguishes the film version is that it is not as decided on that fact as the stage production was, and has been fashioned in a manner as to provoke questions more than provide answers.
|Ted Neeley as Jesus|
|Carl Anderson as Judas|
|Yvonne Elliman as Mary|
|Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate|
Contemporary symbols of military power provoke and bedevil the morally besieged Judas.
|Armed with machine guns and spears, Roman guards march in tank tops and battle fatigues.|
|The angel Judas descends from heaven by way of an industrial crane.|
America's hippie-inspired Jesus movement of the late 60s (Jesus was, after all, the first long-haired, counter-culture revolutionary) that fueled pop-culture works like Jesus Christ Superstar and its off-Broadway cousin, Godspell (1971), greatly influenced my teen-years view of religion.
Between the years 1971 and 1974, I attended Saint Mary's
in Berkeley, Ca., then an all-boys Catholic school. These were the years when the Catholic Church was all about making itself relevant and hip to us youngsters (Bay Area residents of a certain age recall the regular 60-second radio broadcasts of Father Harry of "The God Squad"), so the Christian Brothers that taught at the school eschewed dark robes and clerical collars for colorful wide ties and bellbottoms, and assembly sermons were apt to be kicked off with a pop song like The 5th Dimension's "Working on a Groovy Thing" blasted over the P.A. system. Add to this the fact that virtually every citizen of Berkeley at the time looked exactly like the flower-children cast of Jesus Christ Superstar (Saint Mary's custodian/caretaker was a ringer for Ted Neeley's Jesus Christ, only taller, muscular, and with really tight jeans—can't tell you all the spiritual inner-conflict that little teenage crush inspired) and you get a good idea of why looking at Jesus Christ Superstar today feels a bit like watching a home movie. College High School
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
In spite of my Catholic upbringing, I confess that I find it difficult sometimes to become emotionally moved by religious films. I can enjoy the spectacle, the performances, and the moral of the narrative, but few things are more disconcerting and distancing than having ethics-challenged
Hollywood try to convince me of the value of a virtuous life, simply led. Thus, one of the great pleasures of Jesus Christ Superstar is its abilityto be be enjoyed from either a secular or spiritual perspective. Jewison achieves something rather extraordinary in having devised a timeless, utterly cinematic approach to the material (the past and present keep bleeding into one another other) that doesn't just open up the play, but rethinks and re-imagines it in a profoundly fundamental way.
|The Last Supper - hippie style|
The hippy-dippy /flower child look of the film that so many revivals of the show are so quick to discard, is ideally suited to the time-mashup approach of Jewison's vision. It strikes me as ingenious that we are invited to make paralells between Jesus and his followers and the youth of the 70s. It's a device that give the events a timeless appeal while encouraging us to take subliminal stock of the way the hairstyles and modes of dress of 70s-era hippies and college students harken back to the look of ancient Israel. In stressing the contemporarily familiar, Jesus Christ Superstar establishes a narrative point of view that asks us to question the difference between the myth and the man. And it does so in a way that manages to be both impassioned and reverent, yet refreshingly free of the kind of fervent self-seriousness that mars many films about religion. The non-traditional score (orchestrated pop/rock) and refreshing ambiguity of its visuals (what time is all of this taking place in?) invite the rexamination of once-familiar events and characters.
In listening to 3 decades worth of covers, revivals, and re-recordings, I still find this version of Jesus Christ Superstar to be the best sung of the lot. This is especially true of the late Carl Anderson, whose powerfully clear and expressive voice can still give me goosebumps. Every singer in this role has had to live up to
's standard, and in my opinion, not a single one has. Anderson
|Carl Anderson's show-stopping rendition of the propulsive title song is one of cinema's great musical moments. And who can resist the envisioning of an angel's wings as the fringe on an Elvis Presley-like jumpsuit?|
Oh, and as every rule has its exception: when I wrote earlier that I'm not easily moved by religious films, that still stands; but for Ted Neeley's performance of the song "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)." It's the only part of the film that can consistently bring tears to my eyes. Dramatically shot and tremendously intense, it is a really beautiful bit of filmmaking aided immensly by Neeley's wrenching vocal performance. It's the dramatic centerpiece of the film.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:The dancing in Jesus Christ Superstar is phenomenal. And all those thin, lithe, 70s bodies are a welcome change from the earthbound, often clumsy-looking, gym-puffed bodies of so many dancers today.
My absolute favorite number in the film is "Simon Zealotes." It hits me from the opposite end of the emotional spectrum of Neeley's "Gethsemane" soliloquy. It's joy and energy personified, given vivacious, eye-popping life by some of the most fantastic dancers doing dazzling choreography ever filmed. It has the power to bring me to a state of childlike elation in a single viewing. Even now, all I can think when I look at it is, WOW!!! Now that is what I call dancing! (Watching it makes me feel proud to be a dancer, although, if I were to try any of these moves now, I'd likely break into a million pieces like Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her.)