Tuesday, September 20, 2011

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR 1973


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."
Joseph 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 the final days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, movies have 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, Hollywood cranked out a new Jesus film every couple of years or so, often to make use of technological advancements (sound, color, Cinemascope), or 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
In a huge stylistic departure from the glam-rock roots of the Broadway show, film director Norman Jewison (who so memorably sliced, diced, and bisected theater screens in the stylish crime caper, The Thomas Crown Affair [1968]) went the realist route. Taking a multiethnic cast of young singers, dancers, and actors to Israel and filming on actual locations (some sites breathtakingly dressed by production designer Richard Macdonald with Roman remains and ruins), Jewison lights on a visual concept that, with surprising effectiveness, blends the ancient with the contemporary. A look that abounds with symbolic anachronisms, perfectly suiting the musical score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
 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.
June 1971
Between the years 1971 and 1974, I attended Saint Mary's College High School 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.

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.

PERFORMANCES:
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 Anderson's standard, and in my opinion, not a single one has.
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:
Where Jesus Christ Superstar truly shines is in the stark freshness of its visuals. It's a stunning-looking film from every angle. At turns, whimsical, epic, theatrical, and poetic, it is one of those rare adaptations of a stage success that achieve multiple moments of pure cinema.
  
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.)
Jesus Christ Superstar is yet another one of those motion pictures that grows better with age. Its themes nostalgically remind me of my youth, yet its enduring innovativeness as a film makes me appreciate Norman Jewison's commitment to making this particular "long-running show" one that will hold timeless appeal for new generations.
Judas Kiss

6 comments:

  1. The blend of the ancient and the contemporary, along with the central themes expressed in the story, make Norman Jewison's cinematic adaptation of "Jesus Christ Superstar" a timeless piece of cinema. The dancing is dynamic and, by design, slightly unpolished, much like it was in "Hair" (Milos Forman, 1979), thus affording the song-and-dance numbers something of an organic quality. It's unlikely that these two films shall be remade, as they were so much of a certain period, but there is nonetheless that timeless element to both films. It seems as if the early 1970s was the perfect moment for a rock opera about the last days of Jesus Christ--the spiritual movements within the prevailing hippy (counter) culture, the manner in which youth adorned themselves, and for some reason, the contemporary score works perfectly for a story set in Biblical times. I've witnessed this performed on stage, and called me biased, but having a short-haired Jesus just isn't right. It's stll a great stage show, but I do prefer the screen version. Especially brilliant is the song performed by Simon Zealotes (Larry Marshall), and how Norman Jewison employs simple techniques such as slow-motion and freeze frame to enhance the number--and I love how the dancers simply materialise from thin-air at the beginning of the piece. Of course, Ted Neeley is wonderful as Jesus Christ, and who doesn't feel sympathy for Judas Iscariot, as portrayed by Carl Anderson? To me, Carl makes the biggest impression in the film, and the closing song is, quite appropriately, the best part of the entire movie, and a perfect example of Norman Jewison's formidable cinematic vision. I can't help but think that if this were remade by Hollywood these days, the production would be some big CGI mess!

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    1. I of course agree that the milieu of post-60s Hippiedom better fits the fanciful "Jesus Christ Superstar" than contemporary updates that see Jesus with moussed hair and a leather jacket. The then-rebellious spirit of dress, long hair, dance style, and demeanor fit the outcast retelling of the Passion. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful and well-examined impressions of the film, Mark. It's nice to know that the film remains effective even to young people today (a big concern at the time was the film dating itself. Instead I think it establishes a time and place perfect for Jewison's vision).

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  2. first time on your blog spot....Carl Anderson, a dear friend, portrayal was brilliant and this movie was truly a turning point in many lives including mine. Would love to hear your opinion of Godspell.

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    1. Welcome Lynn!
      So lovely to see you here! I had no idea that Anderson was a friend of yours. What a talent! He's so very good in this, but I never had the chance to see him perform the role live, as I did with Neely.
      Oh yes, I really do need to write about "Godspell." When I was growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the film's flower children, magic show look and feel (like "Pippin" was very intoxicating to me. Hope to hear from you again, Lynn. Thanks for commenting!

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