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?|
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?|
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|
|Just ask Judas Pato|
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|
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.