Today! Because every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand –
Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Directed by Norman Jewison (x2)
Starring Ted Neeley (x2), Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen (x4), Josh Mostel, Bob Bingham, Larry Marshall, Kurt Yaghjian, Paul Thomas
I’m concerned how this movie was translated overseas, as the above tagline – “Love Message Forever” – doesn’t manage to resonate with me, anyway. Nonetheless! Norman Jewison’s follow-up to the damn near perfect #114 Fiddler on the Roof wasn’t the same sort of awards darling, even following a similar template of no name stars, grand location shooting, and excellent source material. Where Superstar leaps ahead in my personal preference is that it’s about an hour shorter, and has just about my favorite rock opera soundtrack of all-time.
Does one have to be particularly religious to enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar? I would contend no. It’s still a great story, and a pretty different twist on the traditional King of Kings plot line. Now, if you’re harboring some major grudges against the church itself, I suppose it might be tough to embrace the musical, or if you’re a hardcore Godspell fan and think the more grandiose Jesus sing-a-long gets too much credit. I imagine it’s just not something that occurs to non-religious (or anti-religious) folks to throw on for a fun afternoon. That makes sense.
I think I’ve mentioned before, my relationship with the Catholics has gotten strained and skeptical over the years, but I still kinda fundamentally believe something. The church is a semi-grotesque mess, after decades (centuries?) of scandals and abuses, but if you strip it all down to the basic original structure as I understand it, yeah, I guess I’m still affiliated. Sort of. And I kinda enjoy the whole Jesus tale, as a dramatic story. It makes for a good narrative, and two pretty good musicals. But my days of being chummy with the priests and the nuns are well behind me.
The main difference between Superstar and pretty much all other tellings of this tale is that it largely goes through Judas. It’s like if one day you’re hanging with a longtime pal and they just start proclaiming themselves the Messiah. Or at least they allow others to believe this about them. How do you react to that? Is your buddy just plum insane? Is everyone around you now part of a cult? It’s a pretty stressed friendship from that point forward, no? Because the Bible neatly glosses over the entire period of Jesus’s life before essentially the final stretch, versions don’t bother supposing much of anything about what he was like before it. This movie – while not exactly wandering down that road either – at least insinuates that he wasn’t strolling around hurling miracles at the crowds, but was just doing the roadshow prophet bit. Also, it ends short of a resurrection, creating a far more accessible story than otherwise.
And all that is fine and interesting, but what really drives this play and this movie are the songs. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice cranked out one great tune after another, compiling one of the best concept album/stage musical librettos ever. And at least the production took some big swings to make it visually interesting. Sure, the acting is kinda iffy – Ted Neeley, for all the pyrotechnics of that voice, doesn’t bring much to Jesus otherwise – and the staging is just a touch jarring in its desert playacting/period-not period setting, but all in all I hold that it works relatively well. Carl Anderson is forever the quintessential Judas, to the point that find myself a little disappointed hearing anyone else sing those songs. Josh Mostel has a fun take on Herod, Yvonne Elliman became a brief sensation thanks to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and new Four-Timer Barry Dennen carries the third act as Pilate.
But I recognize the Jesus Christ Superstar movie is more than a little campy. It’s got a lot of disco foreshadowing for 1973 – I guess it’s kinda more Soul Train than Saturday Night Fever – and everyone dials their performances over the top at least a few times in the film. But this is grand, explosive theater given an epic landscape to play on, so it was bound to get a bit stratospheric. I’m a huge fan, but you’ve gotta buy the whole premise right from the beginning, or I doubt you’ll enjoy much of what follows.
While it only picked up a Music nomination from the Academy, you better believe the Golden Globes hopped on the bandwagon, doling out Best Comedy/Musical, Best Actor for Neeley and Anderson, Best Actress for Ellison, and a few Most Promising Newcomer nominations. By far the most awarded cast member of this film, ultimately, was Peter portrayer Paul Thomas, who went on to have a long, illustrious career in adult movies, a 25-time Adult Video News Award nominee and 10-time winner as actor, director, and screenwriter. I’m pretty surprised IMDB has this information, but lo and behold.