Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Messiah in the desert.

Based on the rock opera of the same name by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, the story centers on the last days of Christ (Ted Neeley) and his interactions with one of his disciples named Judas (Carl Anderson).  Judas does not agree with the direction that Jesus is taking the group and the two share a falling out. The next day in Jerusalem Judas visits the Priests (Bob Bingham, Kurt Yaghjian), who have already made the decision that Jesus must die for the sake of the nation. Using money to bribe him they get Judas to reveal where Jesus will be staying. Then on the next night Judas arrives with guards who arrest Jesus where he’s then taken to the Priests home and sentenced to death.

This film is very similar to Godspell, which came out the same year and was also based off of a Broadway musical. In my opinion they should’ve combined the two into one as there’s not that much of a difference between them. Probably the biggest contrast is that one was filmed in New York City while this one was shot on-location in Beit Guvrin National Park in Israel.  While the extreme heat of the desert forced the cast to take breaks from filming every 20 minutes to hydrate it’s a definite plus cinematically since this was the location where the biblical stories took place and because few people from the US have ever been there, so the landscape holds a distinctive appeal.  Director Norman Jewison takes full advantage of the unique caves that were dug there centuries ago to create many interesting shots.

The cast of characters show a little more distinction and aren’t all dressed like free-spirited vagabonds from the early 70’s like in Godspell although they still act like hippies. Jesus in this film looks more like the accepted artist’s rendition of him as opposed to a clown, but he gets seriously overshadowed by Anderson’s flamboyant performance as Judas to the point that the whole movie would’ve been better served, and more interesting, had he been made the main character.

I enjoyed Yvonne Elliman’s ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, which later became a chart topper, and ‘King Herod’s Song’, which gets performed with campy gusto by Josh Mostel. The film though makes the same mistake as the other one in that there’s no dialogue in-between songs it just goes from one musical number to the next, which gives it a dizzying quality. If you’re really into musicals, or its spiritual message, then you may enjoy it, but anyone looking for conventional type of storytelling will be put off from the very beginning.

I didn’t get why all the anachronisms that get thrown-in either. It starts out with everyone arriving to the scene on a bus like they’re present-day performance artists putting on a show, but then shifts into them becoming the parts that they’re playing until you can’t tell the difference. Several scenes feature army tanks and even airplanes, which were never a part of the actual time period, so why have them? If this was all done to make it ‘hip’ for modern audiences then it doesn’t work and for many will come-off as ridiculously kitschy, which it is.

The one thing it does do well (since I presume everyone, believer or non, knows the story I feel I don’t need to put a ‘Spoiler Alert’ on this one) is the crucifixion, which gets played-out in a far more intense way than in Godspell where he died on an electrical fence that lasted for less than a minute. Here it gets dark and genuinely disturbing and during the ’39 Lashes’ moment forced Neeley’s mother, who had attended the film’s world premiere, to walk out of the theater as she found it too intense.

From my vantage point it’s well produced, but shallow though Jewison did show the film to Pope Paul VI who proudly proclaimed “I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity than anything ever has before.” However, it was not without it’s share of controversy including from religious groups who accused it of being both blasphemous and anti-Semitic. Jewison even admitted, in response to the criticisms, that it was never meant to be anything authentic or deeply theological.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 7, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 47 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Norman Jewison

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

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