My Picks: Jesus Christ Superstar

Simon Zealotes Jesus Christ Superstar (4)

Though an atheist, I love the story of Jesus. One man sacrificing himself for the salvation of all–there’s poetry in that. As a writer, I want to write that story, and many writers, especially in Western Literature, revisited this story in there own works. Some very directly, like Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ. Many Christians riled against this novel, because it depicted Jesus as a man imbued with human vice, including lust, but for Kazantzakis, Jesus’ sacrifice meant nothing if Jesus wasn’t, first and foremost, a man capable of the same emotions and desires of all humans. Other writers chose to rewrite Jesus’ tale in allegory and metaphor, as Ernst Hemingway did in The Old Man and the Sea. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice collaborated to put the story to music, and they gave us Jesus Christ Superstar.

The musical debut on Broadway in 1971, and it had been staged hundreds of times since then. I saw it staged in London in 1976, and it remains a favorite memory from my European visit. Upon returning home, I bought the album and played it often. In those days, I had a tendency to fixate on music, playing the same album or even the same song ten or fifteen times, because I couldn’t get enough of it. (I still do this, but no so often.) In this way, I knew the album by heart. Though the musical was filmed in 1973, I wouldn’t see it until 2000. It became an instant favorite.

Directed by Norman Jewison and staring Ted Neeley as Jesus, Jesus Christ Superstar tells the story about Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, his betrayal by Judas, his captured, and his crucification. Since you know the story, it is impossible for me to spoil the plot for you. But the plot isn’t the point, nor is the characters. The music makes it the movie to see.

Jesus! You’ve started to believe
The things they say of you
You really do believe
This talk of God is true
And all the good you’ve done
Will soon get swept away
You’ve began to matter more
Than the things you say

Carl Anderson as Judas

Carl Anderson as Judas

These days they would cast Tom Cruise as Jesus, Morgan Freeman as Judas, and Scarlette Johansson as Mary Magdalene, and it wouldn’t matter if these actors can’t sing, because the star power would drive box office sales. They would hire Michael Bay to direct it. He would use CGI to create miracles and to add a few explosions to Jesus’ destruction of the money changer’s market. I’m being facetious of course, but with purpose. One charm of Jesus Christ Superstar is that it is not a Hollywood movie. It enjoys a rawness, a lack of refinement, that makes it feel spontaneous and impulsive. In one way, it comes across as an amateur production, as a bunch of local kids putting on a play, but in this performance, we find greatness.

Ted Neeley as Jesus

Ted Neeley as Jesus

It begins with the stars. They are unknown. Even now they are obscure, though Ted Neeley has made a career of acting. Back then, his biggest claim to fame was as the front man of The Ted Neeley Five, a rock band that released one album and then disappeared into oblivion. He’s cast with Carl Anderson as Judas and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Barry Dennen plays Pontius Pilate and Bob Bingham plays Caiaphas. These are not Hollywood’s most glamours actors, but they are not actors, per se. They are singers. They bring no star power to the production, but they do deliver their voices.

In storytelling terminology, Judas is the protagonist. He has the goal of convincing Jesus to abandon his divine calling and to return to his original purposes of helping the poor and defying the Romans. He introduces this goal in the first number, “Heaven on Their Minds,” and repeats these theme in several subsequent songs, until he reaches the conclusion that he must betray Jesus to save the movement. In this way, Judas becomes a sympathetic character, which spark controversy in its time. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe singing, because Anderson’s voice is so remarkable it deserves words. In a movie filled with great voices, his performance stands out. But music has to be experienced to be appreciated, so perhaps it’s okay that I can’t describe it. Watch the movie and experience it for yourself.

Yvonne Elleman as Mary

Yvonne Elleman as Mary

The title song is very catching, and I imagine, even if you’ve never seen the movie, you know it, at least its chorus. Anderson sings it with a host of background singers. But before this finale, Neeley gives us “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” the movie’s saddest song, as Jesus debates his fate. But to me, the most touching moment in the movie comes when Elliman sings “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” This scene is also the most beautifully photographed in the movie.

Then I saw thousands of millions
Crying for this man
And then I heard them mentioning my name
And leaving me the blame

Filmed in Israel on Roman-era ruins, Jesus Christ Superstar feels spontaneous and free. It opens with a hippy bus arriving on set, in the middle of the desert. It carries the cast and crew, and as the overture plays, they unload the bus and don their costumes. With a few exceptions, like Jesus’ white frock, their costumes look like everyday clothing–hippy style. Music inspires dancing, and the dance sequences, though not the most memorable element, are beautiful and exciting. Like everything else, it feels like a mix of professional and amateur moves. Professional moviemakers, singers, and dancers filmed this movie, but in many cases, they abandoned their formulas, their cookie-cutter traditions, and adopted a freeform style that helped define the movie’s openness.

I have written that the human voice, raised in song, is the most beautiful sound. I still believe this. Add that to my admiration to storytelling, and you understand why I love musicals. Jesus Christ Superstar stands as one of my favorites. I love its openness and freedom, I love the music and the dancing, I love the photography and the setting. Most of all, I love the voices raised in song.

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