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Jesus Christ Superstar (Special Edition) (1973)

Christian Movies & TV, Drama, and Special Interests movie directed by Norman Jewison

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Jesus Christ Superstar 1973

  • May 27, 2003
Pros: music hands down, acting

Cons: some scenes may be offensive

The Bottom Line: _____________

I'll just start with a spoiler alert, so you have been warned

One day Tim Rice had some interesting lyrics that were running through his head so he approached Andrew Lloyd Webber, who put them to music. From that developed a stage play, written by Webber & Rice, which eventually resulted in a DVD version of Jesus Christ Superstar that ended up in my player. Many years ago I had watched the film version of this flamboyant musical but I remembered little about it except a few scenes.

The story of the life and death of Christ has been told by many and interpreted, one would assume, to fit their religious beliefs or their own personal beliefs. There are many ways to watch this interpretation of Christ – some are offended, thinking it reeks of blasphemy – others find it a mockery of the somber occasion of the death of Christ – others find it a celebration of his life and, yes, his death. In the end, no one can set a path for another to follow, each person must accept this movie for what it means to them not what it means to someone else.

While I found some scenes that bordered on almost a mockery, I also found a great celebration throughout the movie. I also found Jesus to be at times just a man, just a human, faced with too many trials for him to comprehend and accept. To dissect this movie to fit all viewers will have to fall to other hands than mine, as well I certainly won’t attempt to tell the story of Jesus Christ. My own interpretation is mine, sometimes each of us has a personal place we store memories – this one is mine.

Jesus Christ Superstar won the Best Cinematography Award from the British Society of Cinematographers; Best Foreign Film from David di Donatello Awards; and BAFTA Awards for Best Sound Track. All were very deserving awards for a record that turned into a stage play into a film.

All filming was done in the Bell Caves in Beit Guvrin, Israel, making the stark and foreboding surroundings a perfect backdrop for this harsh look at semi-reality. The lack of staged sets, other than a few scaffoldings, did not distract from the movie. One wants to feel the desolation of the times and I feel it reflects in the acting and the faces of the actors.

So it begins …….
In the middle of nowhere a solitary bus arrives, plumes of dust all but obstruct your view of the bus and the inhabitants. One thing you immediately notice is the large wooden cross strapped to the roof of the bus as the dust settles, the door opens, and the players exit into this wasteland ……….

Heaven On Their Minds
As fitting his role, Judas is the last to exit the bus.
Judas was developed through a remarkable performance by Carl Anderson. Some wonder about the selection of a black man for the part of Judas. I had always been told that Judas was a black man, but that could come from the pigmentation of the skin due to the desert conditions they lived in. I also feel the selection was made because Judas was the one that turned on Jesus and they wanted a dark figure to represent this. They were successful, whatever their intention was, Anderson was the perfect Judas.

He immediately separates himself from the balance of the performers, physically and mentally, as well as in costume. Where all the other disciples appear in plain, white on beige type, clothing, Judas is in bright red with purple trimming. As they unload the bus and all the trappings, including the unwieldy cross, Judas stands on a high peak overlooking the scene. This is where he first questions Jesus’ intent and the intent of the followers, with his rendition of “Heaven On Their Minds”. We hear his love for Jesus in his voice and words, but his distrust of the choices being made.

What’s The Buzz
In the caves, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the Apostles start the question and answer period. The Apostles want to know what is going on, where they are heading, when they will reach their salvation. Mary confronts her first feelings for this Christ-like creature, anointing him with her oils, trying to cool him. All the while, Judas stands at the entrance of the cave, watching this almost hedonistic ritual being performed.

This particular segment is a fast moving and hard-edged rock segment. A lot of dancing and singing, many voices overlapping. An onslaught, if you will, into the peace that surrounds Jesus. He, for the most part, remains removed and serene from the action.

This segment bleeds into the next production Strange Things Mystifying where Judas questions Jesus and his association with Mary Magdalene. In this you find a harsher Jesus, one that speaks his mind and defies those that question him. You see the defeat in the face of Judas, the realization that things are going beyond the point where salvation can come for all involved. This is the point that you learn the true feelings of Judas – the poor and needy – and the burgeoning feeling between Judas and Jesus as they clasp hands and stare into each others eyes.

Then We Are Decided
Caiaphas and Annas discuss the impact that Jesus will have on their world and resolve to eliminate him. These two are the deciding factors in the death of Jesus, if they can but convince others to follow their lead. Caiaphas was played by Bob Bingham, a huge man with a gravely voice that befit the character being portrayed. A more diminutive and whiny Annas was played by Kurt Yaghijian whose reedy voice reflected the unholy decisions they were making.

Everything’s Alright
Our first true introduction to Mary Magdalene, who was played by an entrancing Yvonne Elliman. As she tries to soothe Jesus and convince him, and then Judas, that things will smooth out. Her voice is almost as soothing as her words and for a brief moment all take hope.

This Jesus Must Die & Hosanna
These two songs seal the fate of Jesus. The priests, led by Caiaphas & Annas, make the decision that death is the only resolution. At the same time, Jesus is surrounded by his followers singing his praises in "Hosanna”, the final chord being – “Hey, J.C., will you die for me?" They freeze-frame for a moment on his face as the realization hits Jesus that he is but a pawn in a very large chess set.

An outlandish and vibrant production, the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is represented by Simon Zealotes and Poor Jerusalem. Much like the “What’s The Buzz” segment, this is a tightly choreographed and active dance and singing number. Except for the message given, I didn’t care for this particular number.

Pilate’s Dream
Our first introduction to Pontius Pilate, performed by Barry Dennen. His reflection in this number is a ‘dream’ he has had about meeting a great man and must eventually call for his death. I found Dennen to be very fitting in this role. Prissy, almost simpering, afraid of what he has seen and what is to come.

The destruction of Jerusalem is done by Jesus in the song The Temple. This is an angry man, affronted by the blasphemy he sees surrounding him, the desecration of his reverent temple. His first feelings of defeat in a world that cannot accept him or understand him.

Mary Magdalene faces her internal fears with I Don’t Know How To Love Him. A prostitute by trade, she has found someone that loves her despite her inadequacies. As well, she is facing feelings she has never encountered before, she has always been in control or herself and the situation. She wonders if it is wrong to love this man, this purported Savior, this man of God. And if he will love her back ……

Once Judas crosses the line, going to Caiaphas to divulge the whereabouts of Jesus, he questions his decision and the outcome with Damned For All Time and Blood Money. Annas smiles beguiely and assures him that he will be remembered forever for making his choice to turn Jesus in to Caesar’s army. Oh yes, few will forget that Judas was indeed the one that changed the lives of all involved.

Jesus realizes in The Last Supper that the course has been set in a game that has an outcome he cannot change. He passes the information that Peter will deny him and Judas will betray him, much to everyone’s dismay. Yet, even knowing this, his Apostles do not remain with him during this last night, instead falling into a sleep that leaves Jesus to question his own beliefs alone and to question God.

From this point, many things happen quickly – the betraying kiss of Judas, the arrest of Jesus, Peter’s denial of Christ, Pilate refusing to pass judgement on this man, sending him to King Herod instead. You can see the weakness in Pilate during this time and the strength in Jesus.

Although I enjoyed the performance of Josh Mostel as King Herod and his band of misfit toys, I can certainly see where it would offend many. The performance is almost a burlesque number, humorous and well done. However, considering the circumstances, I can understand others about the nature of this scene. When Herod refuses to condemn or acknowledge this ‘King’, this ‘Christ’, he is returned to Pilate for his sentencing.

Pilate, trying to cover his own buns, begs Jesus to renounce his teachings, to admit, to confess, to do anything. Jesus, even after being flogged, refuses to speak in his own defense, and so seals his fate. At the same time, the announcement by Caiaphas that Judas was the responsible party, leads to the exhaustive death of Judas by his own hand – thus condemning his own soul for all time, the one thing he was wont to avoid. Judas gives his own rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” and you realize his true depth of love for this man he both cherishes and fears.

Before the actual crucifixion, the performance by an ascending white-clothed Judas, seems to me to be the reference to the Resurrection of Christ. This is a highly active performance to Superstar, with a lot of gyrating bodies. The reason I question if this is the reference to the Resurrection, although it precedes the crucifixion, is because the song always references – DID – as in, was it worth it, was it what you expected, did you die in vain?

Of course the appropriate place for this would be after the death, but they were reserving that slot for the final retreating shots, the depletion of the performers and the knowledge of what they had just done. But that is just my take.

Of course, you know how the story ends – or, rather, begins – with the death of Jesus Christ. Not an ending, per se, because instead it is the beginning of a new life for the world, if only they listened to the words given them. Did they listen? Did we listen? One wonders when you look around at the state of things today.

The final scenes of the movie are as it begun, the solitary bus with the performers getting back on. Not quite the same feeling now, more introspective although there is some laughter. Faces show exhaustion, concern, confusion. Mary Magdalene peers over her shoulder as she boards, looking back at the cross that remains on the hill. The final one to embark, as fitting, is Judas, always removed from the crowd, the followers. He, too, looks back at the cross and the impact of that single statement against the setting sun.

Did they realize what they had just done? Were they aware of the impact this could have on people for years, those that do not understand or comprehend the often-confusing interpretation of the Bible?

True, it wasn’t always portrayed as a religious experience, often falling into almost ‘human’ characterization. But perhaps that was the true meaning of the entire thing, that Jesus, although he was the Son of God, was also human and had failings like the rest of us. A movie, offensive to many, but in reality only a movie and the performers were only people playing a part.

The one person I have neglected to reference is Ted Neeley, who portrayed Jesus Christ. I have heard his performance described as wooden, brilliant, stoic, fantastic, deadpan, removed, cold. It is that and more. His physical attributes reflect what we have always been ‘shown to be Christ’, slight of stature, wavy brown hair, serene blue eyes.

At times he did appear removed, deadpan, stoic, wooden. Confronted by the masses, the demands, and his own personal questions of faith, he often removes himself from the scene becoming almost an observer. At the same time, he completely immerses himself into the character known as Jesus Christ. Peaceful and calm, a reserved spirit, at once with you and yet removed.

I didn’t find this production as volatile or questioning as Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus is shown in even less than perfect light. In both movies you often see an angry and confused Jesus, which in turn confused me. In the end, with both movies, I forgot he was human, I forgot he was just a man that happened to also be the Son of God.

Jesus Christ Superstar was directed quite well by Norman Jewison with writing credits going to Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice for the play, adaptation by Melvyn Bragg & Norman Jewison. The breathtaking photography was the work of Douglas Slocombe. The musical score is attributed to Andrew Lloyd Webber as orchestrator, Andre Previn as conductor and Tim Rice as lyricist.



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More Jesus Christ Superstar (1973 m... reviews
review by . November 21, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Jesus Christ Superstar is perhaps the boldest of all musicals made during the last seventy years, even though the story it tells is one that has been told, retold, and read for centuries. The way this show presents its subject material, and context has gotten it banned in a heavily Christian nation in Africa, and scolded by many Christian churches, but this musical has proven appealing to both people of faith, and those without. This musical was ahead of its time, starting an era of adaptation for …
review by . February 15, 2006
I first watched this movie in the late 1990's, 20 years after it came out. At that time, my turnstile record player had gone bust, and I had not heard the concept albumn for years, not having yet bought the soundtrack on CD. I rented this movie from the video store and for the entire time I had it out, I had it playing on the TV continuously just so I could hear the soundtrack. I have always loved the concept albumn for the excellent music and knew all of the songs by heart.    I …
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Ted Neeley makes for a wimpy looking Jesus in Norman Jewison's screen adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice "rock opera," which was a smash on stage in the early '70s. Jewison (Other People's Money) adds some good exterior settings in the desert, but Webber and Rice's dialogue-free story (everything is sung, as in a real opera), with its quasi-profundities about the inner demons of principal figures in the life of Christ, is the real hook. Yvonne Elliman sings the show's best-known song, "I Don't Know How to Love Him."--Tom Keogh
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Director: Norman Jewison
Release Date: 1973
DVD Release Date: August 31, 2004
Runtime: 108 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios
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