Tuesday, September 20, 2011


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"

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.

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.

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 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


  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!

    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).

  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.

    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!

  3. Ken, Again a great review of a film that I could never really connect with, perhaps due to bad events in route to the live show. Mine has always been Godspell. Like Lynn, I would love your take on it. It's not timeless and a little more low-brow than Jesus Christ Superstar, but there is something special. And while this one is not a favorite, because of Larry, I know the words to almost every song :)

    I look forward to your next article.


    1. Hi Cathy
      I love how influential a brother Larry has been to you! I never saw "Godspell" on the big screen, but fell in love with it when it came on cable. I know all the songs and have quite a few favorite moments, but it's a little hard going for me now. I do hope to write about it someday soon, as so many people were exposed to it as children.
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting again, and I'm sorry (but intrigued) about the events en route to the live Jesus Christ Superstar.perhaps it's like my nosebleed (from excitement) I got on the way to seeing "Thank God it's Friday"? :-)

  4. Beautifully written Kenneth!! So eloquently and perfectly put; I resonated with every facet from the choreography to the emotive motions of Simon Z and Neeley at Gesthsemane. I found myself nodding and saying, 'Yes!' (which is a bit odd as I'm yelling at a computer screen) regarding Carl Anderson's vocal brilliance, which also gives me goosebumps to this day. The colours, the movements, the emotional spectrum, all of it so precisely what I have thought and yet found myself envying knowing I would not have been able to have quite so succinctly. Thank you for doing it for me, and so brilliantly. I am amazed that to this day this film has the potency to move me as much as it did when I saw it as a teenager.

  5. Thank you very much! Sounds as if we share a similar fondness for this film!
    It's gratifying to me if this post brought back to you memories of having "Jesus Christ Superstar" as a teen. It really holds up, doesn't it? Your comment is so nice, it's a shame i have to say thanks to "Anonymous" ...but you made my day! :-)

  6. I've never heard this film described as "realist" before... But you make a good case for it. While I wouldn't call Hair director Tom O'Horgan's Broadway approach as glam-rock exactly (you can see the Tony clip on youtube--his conceit was that it was the passion play re-enacted by a sorta insectoid culture that had taken over from human kind... seriously,) the approach works much better although Forman had precedent--the Broadway version was just a minor success running two years or so, so unlike later Lloyd Webber spectacles, when they opened it a year later in London they went a different approach that was very similar to Forman's--location filming aside of course--and in London it ran for 7 or 8 years.

    I was really glad to read your love for this film as it seems to get a lot of flack from younger musical theatre fans (by younger I just mean people like me born in 1980--or after the film came out.) The anachronisms confuse people as do the dated aspects and seem to put a lot of people off.

    Myself, I feel this is the best JCS has ever worked excepting perhaps the original concept album. Perhaps because it was created as an album, it never quite works on stage for me (and I've seen a half dozen professional productions,) and somehow treating it as a long music video seems to manage to make it work dramatically. I can't quite place my finger on why exactly I feel that way, but there it is... (On the other hand, while I enjoy a lot of Parker's film of Evita, I think it never will work better than it did in Hal Prince's production. But in that case, while Evita was a concept album as well initially, Prince insisted and helped with heavy re-writes before he would stage it, something JCS never benefited from--aside from the addition of Start Again Please--due to the producers feeling the mammoth selling concept album was too well known to mess with.)

    A great film--and it's nice to see it appreciated so well. I admit, the hippies in the bus thing kinda makes less sense the more i think about it (a friend pointed out that they leave the poor hippies who played Judas and Jesus behind when they get back on the bus--is this some bizarre ritual they enact each year, choosing two of their members to be sacrificed to their passion play? :P ) But it hardly matters...

    Eric Henwood-Greer

    1. Hi Eric
      Nice to hear from someone who appreciates this film, too. I need to see i ton the big screen again. The vistas and sound were amazing.
      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on your fondness for this film. And it does amuse me to think of the hippie bus pulling away at the end...lighter by two members of the troupe..

    2. But Judas/Carl Anderson does, in fact, get on the bus.....he's the last one, hanging on to the door handle as the bus pulls away.

  7. (And of course I meant Jewison and not Forman--Hair confusion...)

  8. Hi Ken.

    I will never accept this version because Ian Gillan was not in the role of Jesus. I understand it was offered to him but he declined out of commitment to his band (which broke up shortly thereafter). I have found clips on youtube that dub Ian Gillan over Ted Neeley and I quite enjoyed them.

  9. Hi Mij
    I didn't know that about Ian Gillian. Certainly the first singing JC I'd heard, but not not my favorite. That's pretty funny about the YouTube clips.

  10. Ken-
    Thank you for writing this great review, from another Ken. I find that Ted Neely's performance is solid, but agree that Ian Gillan was a better singer. Also, I have a problem with his short stature. Also, Murray Head was an amazing Judas. But no-one could top Carl Anderson's screen presence. His singing is just as great, but completely different from Head's vocals.

    Film wise what is great about musicals back then is that they had the production budget to stage the musical numbers correctly, which takes a lot of time. I was curious what you think about film musicals today, going back to Moulin Rouge, Chicago and La La Land. I think that editing and cutting has replaced meticulous rehearsal, staging and choreography.

    1. Hi Ken
      Glad you enjoyed the piece. I agree that Ian Gillian has a great voice and does a wonderful job, just not my taste. Likewise Murray Head who is an impressive Judas I always enjoy listening to when I revisit the studio album. Sometimes I think the fact that the various styles are so different allows one to enjoy lots of different singers in the role without having to compare "best" - each brings something unique to their interpretation (I guess I'm just partial to the film folks - although yes, Neeley is kind a diminutive Jesus).
      I have to agree with you about musicals today. I'm neither as young or as impressionable as I was when I saw so many of the musicals that I love, but I do sense that in many of today's musicals there's a bit of production overkill (in the way of editing and CGI) to compensate for musical talent that seems to be lacking. Also, I'm not always so sure people know how to construct musicals anymore. They seem to one climax after another, no buildup.
      Thanks for asking my opinion on a subject I love, and especially for sharing your thoughts on JC Superstar. A lifetime favorite. You've got a terrific name, by the way!

  11. Ted Neely is the BEST Jesus EVER, and Carl Anderson has the best opening number!

    It's taken some time for me to really appreciate this movie, but it is something cool.

  12. Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.
    Who'd you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop?
    Buddha, was he where it's at? Is he where you are?
    Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?
    Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake, or
    Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

    Greatest lyric in all of musical theatre history. My favorite double bill of all time: this and Scorsese's "Last Temptation Of Christ".