Friday, September 30, 2011

ROSEMARY'S BABY 1968

“Cinematically speaking, if stressful social times trigger in our culture the need for escapism as a coping mechanism, then such conditions must equally inspire the necessity of what can be best described as a shrouded emotional outlet: an avenue, concealed to the psyche, through which the fears and uncertainties of the times can be safely vented. In this manner the horror film has always been socially revealing.”   - 


Rosemary's Baby: Child of the '60s:
Rosemary’s Baby was released in June of 1968. And as social climates go, one couldn't find a year more defined by stress, fear, and uncertainty than America in 1968. This was the year that saw: Richard Nixon elected to the office of President; the assassination of two American symbols of hope (Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy); U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam escalating; and big cities and college campuses across the nation wracked by violent civil rights protests and heated anti-war demonstrations. Observed Los Angeles Times journalist Bettuane Levine: “It was a very bad year. Strikes, sit-ins, and bloody riots dotted the land, as various groups sought their share of the pie. The result was a country in crisis, our cities in tatters, our dislocated lives punctuated by assassination, Cold War threats, nuclear terrors, and a general feeling that nothing would ever be the same again.”
The real-life Time Magazine cover, dated April 8, 1966 poses the unasked
question augured by Rosemary's Baby's unsettlingly ambiguous ending 

The seemingly insurmountable hurdle faced by anyone endeavoring to make a horror film in the tumultuous atmosphere of the late-'60s lie in determining what could possibly frighten an audience that, on a nightly basis, had beamed into their homes the violence and real-life terrors of war and protest confrontations escalated by the police and military. Audiences who, via photojournalism periodicals like Life and Look, regularly confronted graphic evidence of a nation growing increasingly chaotic. What fictional creature or imagined narrative could compete with the real-life horror that was modern America?   
Enter, Rosemary's Baby. Ira Levin's cannily-plotted 1967 bestseller was a contemporary horror story about modern-day witchcraft. Classic gothic horror conventions were revitalized by reimagining them through the prism of an emerging new worldview. A world in which drafty castles, thunderstorms, cobwebs, bats, and creaky doorways had long ceased being viable mechanisms of fear. A world of reason and logic that had moved (or so it thought) beyond the primitive influences of superstition and myth. Rosemary's Baby proposed that even in a world in which God and religion were deemed obsolete, there remained unexplained (and unimaginable) things that never died, and evil that was impervious to time. 
Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse
John Cassavetes as Guy Woodhouse
Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet
Sidney Blackmer as Roman Castevet

Roman Polanski's uncommonly faithful film adaptation took Ira Levin's narrative one step further by removing the unequivocal (the novel takes the existence of Satan as a reality and presents the coven, its intentions, and Guy's recruitment as elements of fact) and replacing it with ambiguity.  
Polanski threads the tale of a young bride's mounting certainty that a coven of witches has evil designs on her unborn child, with both cultural subtext (it subtly proposes that the dawning of the year "One" [1966] and the birth of the Antichrist on earth are the explanation for 1968's real-life horrors), and a sense that many of Rosemary's anxieties are the product of her imagination. Polanski initially filmed, and later deleted, several scenes that distinctly confirmed Guy's involvement with the coven, and purposely gave all of Rosemary's fantastic fears rational alternatives. An avowed atheist, Polanski wanted to make an occult horror film about witchcraft and Satanism that would play just as well as a psychological thriller about a pregnant woman suffering a severe paranoid breakdown. No matter how the film is viewed, in Polanski's deft hands, Rosemary’s Baby is an intense and atmospheric slow-boil horror experience that also works as an overwhelmingly persuasive allegory about the durability of evil. 
Maurice Evans as Edward "Hutch" Hutchins
Ralph Bellamy as Dr. Abraham Sapirstein

Watching Rosemary's Baby, it's difficult not to find yourself succumbing to the darkly-comic overtones of its somewhat audaciously clever plot: The living Devil born in a creepy Manhattan apartment building (the notorious Bramford, portrayed externally by the equally notorious Dakota, site of the tragic 1980 shooting death of John Lennon) to an ordinary woman. Indeed, a lapsed Catholic of wavering, undefined faith, who's used as a vessel by a coven of septuagenarian Satanists to herald the end of  God's hegemony and the beginning of new, Satanic world order. 
Charles Grodin as Dr. C.C. Hill
Sixties audiences responded (perhaps more subliminally than consciously) to what the horror of Rosemary's Baby represented: it offered a timely and relevant "explanation" as to why the world of 1968 was such a hellscape. The son of Satan was born on earth in 1966, ushering in an era that the uncharacteristically impassioned Roman Castevet promised would- "Redeem the despised and wreak vengeance in the name of the burned and tortured." 
So, Levin's perverse reversal of Christian myth provided a kind of cathartic release for '60s audiences, for in offering an "explanation" for the chaos of the times...even a horrifically unimaginable one...order felt temporarily restored.
Minnie: "Sometimes I wonder how you're the leader of anything!"
The outwardly ineffectual Roman casts his steely and deadly gaze on Rosemary's friend Hutch, who proves to be too curious about that tannis root charm for his own good


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Rosemary's Baby truly excels in its dramatization of the banality of evil. Though played for darkly comic effect, it's really rather jarring that the monsters in this contemporary horror film are harmless-looking little old ladies and men. Just the kind of colorless, ordinary people we as a society are so quick to dismiss. Imagine how this detail played to audiences in the "Don't trust anyone over 30" climate of the '60s, and you get a taste of just how subversively eerie Rosemary's Baby seemed when it hit the screens. Audiences accustomed to horror films as low-budget, B-movie double-feature fare were disquieted when this major motion picture (which was intentionally shot to look as though it were a Doris Day comedy) with an art-house director and an A-list cast dared to make a horror film that took itself seriously enough to be truly frightening. 
Guy's First Betrayal
Polanski's use of a low camera angle allows Guy to shield his face from Rosemary
(and the audience) the first time he lies to conceal his seduction by the coven

Obfuscation and the barely-seen detail luring around the corner are among the tolls Polanski employs in his depiction of a world morally turned on its axis. In keeping so many of the film's horrors unseen or unsubstantiated, Polanski orchestrates a gradual, nightmarish transformation of all that is perceived as safe and familiar into the potentially dangerous and sinister. As a cleverly constructed parable of '60s unease, Rosemary's Baby captured the imagination of the country and became a major boxoffice hit. 

The gradual dismantling of the safe structures of Rosemary's world has a destabilizing effect on the viewer, making us empathize with her isolation and vulnerability. 
Any security or safety Rosemary finds in her marriage is an illusion.
Rosemary responds to father figures. Her friend Hutch is unsuccessful in
protecting her from the superficially paternal Dr. Sapierstein, who betrays her
Rosemary's body is under assault from within and without


PERFORMANCES
Although the consistently underrated Mia Farrow contributed many outstanding performances to the films she made with Woody Allen (Broadway Danny Rose being a particular favorite), no performance of hers has ever got to me like her Rosemary Woodhouse. From the moment she appears onscreen she exhibits a credible vulnerability and appeal that anchors the film in the kind of emotional reality necessary to make this horror fantasy work. The character from the novel comes to life in Farrow's fully-inhabited personification of a modern woman with a traditional streak (beyond home and family, there's no indication that she has any other ambitions) and a nagging guilt about her backsliding Catholicism. Best of all, her actions propel the plot. Her mistakes, strengths, vulnerabilities, and values determining how the coven's plans for her will play out.
At every turn, the actions and behavior of Farrow's Rosemary are rooted in something psychologically authentic. She's so good that no one else is imaginable in the role despite how well suited they were to Polanski's initial vision (he sought Jane Fonda or Tuesday Weld). I think Mia Farrow's Rosemary ranks with Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde and Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? as one of the best performances by an American actress in the '60s.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
As he demonstrated with his psychosexual thriller Repulsion (1965), Roman Polanski is an adept translator of the strange "reality" of the unreal world of dreams. The dissociated sounds, the dissipated images, the disconnected logic...Polanski captures all of these shifting subconscious impressions to great effect in crafting Rosemary's Baby's centerpiece moment--the dream/nightmare sequence. It's an eerie, atmospheric classic that's so effective that no two people see the events of Rosemary's dream in the same way.  Like a real dream, its interpretation is ambiguous as it is subjective.
As you might imagine, this sequence was particularly disturbing to me as an 11-year-old. As a Catholic School kid, I wasn't aware of having harbored any set thoughts one way or another as to the possibility of a real Satan or the Devil. This scene kinda forced the issue in a nightmarishly literal way.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Rosemary's Baby wasn't the first film I ever saw, it just feels that way. At 11 years old, it was the first film to ever make an indelible impression on me. I never forgot it. Part of this was due to the fact that it was absolutely THE most frightening film I had ever seen to date and was responsible for innumerable bad dreams and a reluctance to enter dark rooms for months thereafter. Revisiting it over the years in revival theaters and special Anniversary screenings (memorably, one with producer Robert Evans in a Q & A at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences) only solidifies what I intuited back in 1968; Rosemary's Baby was and is a small masterpiece.
The scene that gave me a goosebump chill the first time I saw it

A horror film that plays fast and loose with the conventions of the genre, blending elements of the psychological thriller and paranoid social drama. Beautifully shot, well-written, superbly acted, and above all, smart as a whip. At no time during Rosemary's Baby do you ever lose the feeling that you are in the hands of a man who knows exactly what he's doing and eliciting from you precisely the response he wants you to have.
It is a film of solid assurance in every aspect.


BONUS MATERIAL:
D'Urville Martin, who portrayed Diego, the elevator man (who makes a reappearance in Rosemary's dream as the gruff sailor on Kennedy's yacht) went on to be a prolific producer, actor, and director in the Black Film explosion of the early '70s. In addition to appearing in films like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), Black Ceasar (1973), and being cast as the original Lionel Jefferson in TV's All in the Family, Martin directed and played the villain in the Rudy Ray Moore cult classic Dolemite (1975). 
In Eddie Murphy's 2019 Dolemite is My Name, Martin was portrayed by Wesley Snipes.

In 2014 Rosemary's Baby was made into a monumentally misguided TV miniseries starring Zoe Saldana. My thoughts on the matter - The Devil is in the Details: Adapting Rosemary's Baby for the Big and Small Screen.


AUTOGRAPH FILES:
My sister (my family are the only ones to call me Kenny) got John Cassavetes to autograph this receipt when she saw him at a restaurant on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles in 1979. She knew I would get a kick out of it and I did, indeed.

"It's Vidal Sassoon. It's very in."
The $5000 haircut
On August 14, 1967, a week before production began on Rosemary's Baby, legendary hairstylist Vidal Sassoon was flown to Hollywood to give Mia Farrow's already short haircut a "trim" as a publicity stunt. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Sassoon in 2003. An incredibly nice and gracious man.


Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 -2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS 1967

Given the vast number of great films out there and the slim chance any of us have (in our all-too-brief lifetimes) of ever finding the time to see them all, one has to wonder why anyone would waste their moments watching (and re-watching) a film one already knows to be bad. 
Well, first off, the term “bad,” as applied to film, is a terribly subjective signifier governed by strict classifications of rank. For example: there’s straight-out unwatchable, bottom-of- the barrel bad, like Adam Sandler, Michael Bay, or Eli Roth movies; then there’s the waste-of-celluloid, forgotten-even-as-you’re-watching-it kind of bad you’re guaranteed with a Matthew McConaughey or Jason Statham film; and finally, there is the top-tier, rarefied, irresistible awfulness of a film like Valley of the Dolls. 

What makes this final category of bad so special is that, unlike the sluggish product born of dull incompetence and a lack of talent, this distinguished rank of terrible is the kind of delightfully vibrant, peppy wretchedness that only the truly talented can create. It entertains, it engages, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry (from laughing) ...in short, it does everything a good movie does...yet it's not. Now, that HAS to be some kind of achievement!
Patty Duke is Neely (Ethel Agnes) O'Hara: Nice kid turned lush!
Barbara Parkins as Anne Welles: Good girl with all the bad breaks!
Sharon Tate as Jennifer North: Sex symbol turned on too often!
Susan Hayward as Helen Lawson: A gut, fingernail, and claw fighter who went down swinging!

This hilariously self-serious film adapted from Jacqueline Susann's ragingly popular novel about three girls balancing career, romance, and pharmaceuticals in the seamy world of show business, is one of the best examples of that forgotten 60s subgenre: the glossy, career-girl soap opera. Films like Three Coins in a Fountain (1954), The Best of Everything (1959), The Pleasure Seekers (1964), and The Group (1966 ) all purported to be modern exposés on the lives of young, emancipated American womanhood, but what they really were were moldy cautionary tales warning women of the dangers of seeking lives outside of the traditional home and family.
Love Eyes
Career-girl Anne hopes to put the "double harness" on her boss, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke)

A master's thesis could be written (and probably has) on the many missteps taken in bringing Susann's sex-filled potboiler to the screen, but any such dissection has to start with the screenplay and director. Really, who thought it was a good idea to have 60-year-old Helen Deutsh and 57-year-old Dorothy Kingsley collaborate on a screenplay about three women in their 20s? With their tin ear for sixties idioms and maiden aunt's sense of shock at Susann's yawn-inducing concept of naughtiness (spelled out in bold letters in case we are dozing — Adultery! Pre-Marital Relations! Homosexuality! Abortion! Insanity!), Valley of the Dolls has all the up-to-date urgency of an issue of "Captain Billy's Whiz Bang."
53-year-old Mark Robson, the stodgily old-school director best known for that antiseptic paean to small-town debauchery, Peyton Place (1957), directs Valley of the Dolls as though he had made a bet with someone that he could make a 1967 film look like it was made in 1957. A bet he would win, I might add. Looking at the film's flat, high-key lighting (which makes location shots look as artificial as soundstages) and the stiff, camera-nailed-to-the-floor cinematography, one begins to understand why, in just a couple of years, Hollywood would be opening its doors and throwing directing jobs at anyone under the age of 30.
Although we're spared Neely's actual nightclub act, its look is reminiscent of "Steam Heat" from The Pajama Game. A number originated on Broadway by Carol Haney, and whose understudy was one Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine, who became a star after stepping in for the ailing Haney one night (holy 42nd Street!) incorporated the number into her own nightclub act for many years.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Everything. And there aren't even many "good" films I can say that about, but it's true. There's not a single thing about Valley of the Dolls I would change. It's a perfect aggregation of people capable of better delivering their worst. Jacqueline Susann - who had dreams of seeing her film cast with top-tier stars like Judy Garland, Candice Bergen, and Ann-Margret - loathed the cast of TV Guide unknowns assembled for her opus. (Lee Grant and Barbara Parkins were both from TVs Peyton Place.)
Lee Grant as Miriam Polar
The one-time blacklisted actress admits to only taking the role for the money 
Paul Burke was another familiar TV face, having done years of episodic TV and was best known for the series, Naked City. Sharon Tate was a starlet on her way up, after having appeared in The Beverly Hillbillies. Even Oscar-winner Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) was primarily a television face...er, faces (she played twin cousins). When Judy Garland dropped out (or was kicked out) as Helen Lawson, 2nd choice Susan Hayward was hardly at the top of her career game, either.
There are likely many reasons why established stars were eschewed in favor of so many contract newbies, but the most likely reason is that the movie's wig budget didn't allow for big star salaries.
Random thoughts: How did she get all of that hair into that cab?
"Well, Broadway doesn't go for booooze and dope!"
Richard Angarola as Claude Chardot: "Art film" director and winner of the Pepe Le Pew Award for the world's worst French accent.
"Ted Casablanca is not a fag!" 
Neely asserts to sweet, emasculated, homophobe Mel Anderson (Martin Milner); a.k.a, Mr. O'Hara.
 
PERFORMANCES
Although she gets plenty of competition, no one in  Valley of the Dolls really comes close to Patty Duke, who was the reigning queen of epically bad performances until Faye Dunaway blew her out of the water 14 years later with Mommie Dearest. Hers is the film's meatiest role, but that meat soon takes on a rancid smell once you get a sample of the risible dialog she's given ("Boobies, boobies, boobies...nothin' but boobies!"), and marvel at her tendency to bark, rather than speak it ("It was NOT a nuthouse!"). She's better than bad, she's magnificent.
Personality Plus. Sparkle, Neely, Sparkle!
THE STUFF OF FANTASY
With its old-fashioned plot full of wheezy, show-biz clichés, Valley of the Dolls' sole concession to modernity ('60s style) is in its eye-catchingly overblown fashion sense. The costumes are by Oscar-nominated designer William Travilla (The Stripper -1963, How to Marry a Millionaire -1953), the overkill is courtesy of The Sixties!
Neely O'Hara...younger than springtime - and twice as exciting!


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
In 2006, when Valley of the Dolls was released as a two-disc Special Edition DVD in a hot pink case loaded with camp-tastic extras, it became official: 20th Century-Fox was no longer going to pretend that Valley of the Dolls was anything other than what it was— deliciously entertaining, high-octane cheese. That moment of if-you-can't-beat-'em marketing lucidity was rather a long time in coming considering that the gay community had single-handedly kept the film alive for decades.
As is often the case when a cult film is discovered and embraced by the masses, there's a bit of something lost in the appreciation of it. Nostalgically, I miss the days when loving this film and enjoying it in theaters with the faithful was like a secret ritual enjoyed by the few. Today Valley of the Dolls is enjoyed by people who wouldn't know irony or camp if it hit them between the eyes. But without all that mainstream attention, Fox never would have gone through the trouble and expense of mounting such an impressive and well-deserved DVD package, so putting up with the hetero appropriators is a small price to pay.
A young Marvin Hamlisch accompanies that bundle of talent, Neely O'Hara
The first time I saw Valley of the Dolls it was in 1968 at the Castro theater in San Francisco. I was 11 years old and I went with my older sister who had seen the film the week before and raved about how good it was. Hard for me to imagine now, but at the time, I took Valley of the Dolls deadly seriously and even cried when Sharon Tate's character took that handful of pills and expired so glamorously on that ugly orange bed. I thought Barbara Parkins was very beautiful, but I was kind of confused by my teenage Patty Lane/Patty Duke's transformation into an adult with big hair and a potty mouth. I had been a fan of The Patty Duke Show, and I really don't think I was ready at so young an age to see Duke looking all puffy and exposed in a bra and half slip. The strongest memory I came away with that day was the almost traumatizing "wig snatching" scene. Not sure why, but it scared the hell out of me.
I'll never be able to view Valley of the Dolls through such innocent eyes again, but I'm gratified that it has finally come into its own as a mainstream cult hit. To this day it amazes me just how durably enjoyable and fresh it remains after so many viewings. Quotable, full of memorable, jaw-dropping scenes and over-the-top performances...this kind of bad is too good to be forgotten.

Neely's back alley breakdown

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2011

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."
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, with so many iterations of the same tale already committed to celluloid, it's fair to assume that by 1973, when the 1971 Broadway rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was ultimately adapted for the screen, no one involved harbored any illusions that audiences would be flocking to the film eager to find out how it all comes out.

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 the fact of Jesus' mortality as the stage production, and that uncertainly has been presented in such 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 significant 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. It's an aesthetic choice rich with tonal and symbolic anachronisms, perfectly suiting the neoclassical, pop/rock 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) which fueled pop-culture works like Jesus Christ Superstar and its off-Broadway cousin, Godspell (1971), greatly influenced my perception of religion during my teen years.
June 1971
Between the years 1971 and 1974, I attended Saint Mary's College High School in Berkeley, which was 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 seemed to look 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 for me a bit like watching a home movie.

The troupe arriving by bus to enact the Passion Play in the desert brings to mind all those
Catholic School weekend retreats where we kids were encouraged to "rap" and "tell it like it is"

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 ability to 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) that doesn't merely "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, which 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 parallels between Jesus and his followers and the youth of the '70s. It's a concept that gives 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 refreshingly ambiguous nature of its visuals (what time is all of this taking place in?) invite the re-examination of over-familiar events and characters.

PERFORMANCES
In listening to three 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 has a lot to do with the era in which I grew up and the pop sound I'm accustomed to, but the arrangements, orchestrations, and vocal performances here are just top-notch. 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 comes close. His Judas was more than just a great voice, he was a passionate actor, as well.
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 a Vegas-era Elvis Presley 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; with the exception of 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 emotionally intense, it is a really beautiful bit of filmmaking aided immensely 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.
When I first saw the film, glitter, disco, and Elton John glitz was all the rage, so I was a bit disappointed that Jesus Christ Superstar didn't look more like the stage production, As the years have gone by, I'm glad the film didn't mire itself in a look that would have given it the feel of a '70s variety show. Sure, the hippie style employed may be labeled "dated," but for me, it's a look evocative of the time which created this show's perspective (the '60s) - and somehow that feels more than perfect...it's ideal.
  
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


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2011