Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar

I am not much of a musical fan.  To date, the only ones I have reviewed are Christmas-themed ones, and I have watched them more as a concession to the season than to the genre.  When asked what my favorite musicals are by people who are musical fans --- for the record, they are South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory --- I usually get "Well, I don't know if those count" as a response.  And while I am more than willing to defend my choices, when pressed for a more traditional answer to the question, I usually mention Singin' in the Rain and Jesus Christ Superstar, although I haven't seen either one in many years.  With Christmas nearly upon us, I thought I would put the Superstar back in Christmas and revisit the only musical to impress me during my teenage years.  Although, to be fair, I guess this is more of an Easter movie than a Christmas one...

At its most basic, Jesus Christ Superstar is the story of the last days in the life of pre-zombie Jesus Christ (Ted Neeley).  Jesus knows his awful fate, but also knows that he is a man-godling on a mission.  While he deals with the frustration and depression of his inevitable crucifixion, his followers struggle to understand him.  Some, like Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman), struggle to ease his burden while others, like Simon, expect Jesus to lead them on a violent revolution any day now.
Why would he think that?
Jesus' right hand, Judas (Carl Anderson), worries that his friend is buying into his own hype too much and will get them all in trouble with the ruling Romans.  Meanwhile, the Jewish high priests see Jesus as a problem; if the rabble decide to crown Jesus as any type of king, literal or not, the Romans will be rather upset.  But what to do?  For Jesus to be taken out of the picture permanently, he would have to be arrested --- but for what crime?
Cross-dressing, maybe?

Of course, this movie is not that simple.  Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera, a musical perhaps inspired as much by Woodstock-era rock 'n' roll as it is by Fred Astaire or Bing Crosby.  The film is metatheatrical --- the cast is seen arriving out of costume and setting up props at the beginning of the film --- and much of it is purposefully anachronistic (guns, grenades, postcards, hairstyles, etc.).  Character appearances and costumes are often more indebted to the 1970s than Biblical times.  Every line of dialogue is sung, and songs frequently bleed into one another; since the songs act as dialogue, that makes some of the dramatic settings for their songs/dialogue seem silly, like when Judas asks why Jesus won't listen to him...while he complains from a mountain top.  The dancing tends to be spasmodic, although it can also be pretty silly, too.  The film's tone is also unusual for a Biblical tale.  Judas is the most sympathetic and well-developed character in the cast and Jesus can come across as smug or irritable, which is far more human than he is usually portrayed on film.
Awkward pause after Jesus lets slip a "Goddammit"

Director and co-writer Norman Jewison made a lot of interesting choices with this film, and I thought many of them worked surprisingly well.  I haven't seen the stage musical, but I have to imagine that most people (especially in 1973) would have expected a more dastardly Judas and Pontius Pilate and a more divine portrayal of Jesus.  I definitely enjoyed the complexity and multidimensional characters Jewison helped bring to the screen.  I have absolutely no idea why the film includes tanks and jets at seemingly random moments (symbolism of Rome, yes, I get it, but why tanks and jets, specifically?), or why the High Priests spend their time on scaffolding.
Maybe to avoid discussing their hats?
If nothing else, I have to admit that Jesus Christ Superstar is a well-shot film that rarely takes the expected route with a story that is not new to its audience.  Whatever your opinion on the singing and dancing in this movie, it is hard to deny that Norman Jewison directed the hell out of this material.

The acting, on the whole, is not that great.  There are a number of smaller parts that could have been great with better actors, and several characters that could have been important were relegated to minor supporting roles (Peter, Simon, the High Priest, etc.).
One song, and that's all we hear from Simon
Here's an interesting side note:  Philip Toubus, who played Peter, is actually longtime porn actor/director Paul Thomas; in other words, the apostle that denied Christ three times is also the director of Savannah's Anal Gangbang.  I'm not saying that there is causation there, but I thought it was interesting.  Interesting post-movie tidbits are fine, but movies --- especially musicals --- need magnetic lead actors.  Luckily, the stars of the film are pretty good.  Ted Neeley gives a very vulnerable performance as Jesus.  It's not the sweetest Jesus you will ever see, but it was interesting to see the character handled as a good person with a lot to handle.  Carl Anderson's performance as Judas was a show-stealer, though. 
Just ask Judas Pato
Is there a more reviled person in The Bible than Judas Iscariot?  Lucifer doesn't count, since he's not a person, so the answer is "no."  Anderson made Judas' actions seem reasonable and gut-wrenching.  He also had the benefit of being the key part in the opening and closing songs, which doesn't hurt.

Since this is a musical, I should probably address the quality of the songs.  This was where the movie falls apart for me.  I just don't like the structure for most of these songs.  Don't get me wrong; there are many memorable bits and pieces of music in this musical --- "What's the Buzz," "Superstar," "King Herod's Song (Try It and See)" --- but few of them were shaped into their own full-fledged songs.
Herod is unexpectedly awesome
I thought the music suffered under the weight of singing all the dialogue.  I understand that this is an opera, but that doesn't mean that I have to enjoy Ted Neeley's rock star shriek when he's just singing lines that would have been far more effective spoken or shouted.  And, to be perfectly honest, I just plain disliked at least a third of the songs in this movie.  Am I the only person who hears the beginning of the Batman TV theme in the opening chords of "Damned For All Time"? (it starts at the 1:17 mark)

Just listen to that!  As awesome as Carl Anderson is there, shredding his vocal chords and giving his all, the ridiculous bass/falsetto of the High Priests undercuts the greatness with lame silliness.  For every song I genuinely liked, there at least one song I genuinely disliked, with another third as just neutral.  If this was a normal film, I think I would have enjoyed it more because the direction is impressive and I really liked the lead actors.  Unfortunately, I wasn't much of a fan of the music.

Oh, but it is hard to not like the rock 'n' soul of "Superstar."  So good!  If the rest of this musical was as solid as this song, I would absolutely love it.  But it's not, so I don't.


  1. It always reminds me of the Batman theme (all zillion times I have heard it). Carl Anderson is to this movie, what Rose is to the Bulls. For me there is too much awesomeness (often in the form of unintentional comedy) in this movie to warrant only six stars.

  2. I wanted to like it more than I did. Maybe some of it was disappointment that a movie that I liked as a youngster was best appreciated with irony as an adult. Or maybe this just isn't a fun movie for me to watch by myself. I definitely see your point --- there are a lot of moments that are unintentionally funny --- but the non-awesome musical moments made the movie drag for me.

  3. "Youngster" Love it. I suppose that I probably have never seen this movie sober. The poor tunes are the perfect opportunity to pour another drink!

  4. Hmm...bad music as an opportunity to fix a cocktail? I feel foolish for not seeing this film's potential earlier!