Movie Name: Jesus Christ Superstar
Studio: Universal Studios
Release Date(s): August 15, 1973
MPAA Rating: G
In the desert, a group of hippies gather to put on a play. It is the epic story of Jesus Christ (Ted Neeley) and his last days leading up to the crucifixion. While Jesus is guided by God and a sense of duty, he finds himself trapped between Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) who loves him and Judas (Carl Anderson) who resents him. As Jesus fears his hour is approaching, he finds rampant followers in Simon (Larry Marshall) and his beliefs are tested by Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) and King Herod (Josh Mostel). Can Jesus keep his faith and transcend from man to legend?
Directed by Norman Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar adapts the 1971 hit musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber which actually started as a concept album in 1970 before being brought to the stage. Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson were both nominated for Golden Globes for their performance (though neither won).
In 1973, the movie theater musical was relatively dead. Other “hippy” musicals like Hair and Godspell made some waves, but the heyday of the theatrical musical was dead. Jesus Christ Superstar and other musicals from the period are very much of the period, but have a nice nostalgia to them that is captured in this production.
The movie, like the musical, stirred some controversy. Many felt it portrayed a too sexual Mary Magdalene with her feelings for Jesus and one of the big hit songs “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was an expression of her love. Judas on the other hand was accused of being portrayed as too sympathetic as a political revolutionary who felt Jesus was turning against the mission. Jesus is shown to be indecisive, scared, and confused about his future instead of someone filled with the word of God. People also object to the fact it doesn’t cover the resurrection…the musical ends after the Crucifixion.
These portrayals are what work in the film. The fun dynamic between Jesus, Judas, and Mary help provide the conflict for what is essentially an opera. The music when they are together, is much better than the individual songs by Jesus or anyone else. This is also because I find Ted Neeley’s performance as Jesus is pretty weak (though some of that can be contributed to weaker songs) while Yvonne Elliman and Carl Anderson are much stronger singers in the film.
The movie has a scaled-down look and is intentionally minimal in its sets and appearances. It was shot in Israel and has a real ’70s feel to it in its style and cinematography. Things like the mixing in of famous Crucifixion paintings and the Disciples “freezing” to form Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (which has been done countless times since). The music is fun and catchy. Most of Mary and Judas’ songs really nail what the creator is going for. Jesus’ songs are hit and miss but “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” is probably his high point. With the fun shooting style, the movie really works well with it. It is very stylish and retro in feel.
Jesus Christ Superstar might not be the best musical ever or the best movie ever, but it is still kind of fun. Like other cheesy modern musicals, Jesus Christ Superstar taps some good talent, but unlike movies like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Xanadu, the movie has some style to it. If you want some Easter fun check out Jesus Christ Superstar and “rock out”.