I grew up with this musical in my ears; we had the soundtrack on vinyl, and it always got pulled out sometime during the year. I’d seen it a few times before but not for a few years, though every so often I would happily sit on the bus and nod along to the soundtrack. I hadn’t, until recently, viewed the film as a critic more than just an admirer; while I had fond memories, I was stunned by exactly how invigorating and powerful Jesus Christ Superstar is as a statement on, and camp critique of, religion and obsession.
Jesus Christ Superstar is an unrecognised masterpiece, an unsurpassed cinematic counterpoint to all the laudatory films documenting the life of Christ made over the years (perhaps with the exception of Life of Brian, but they’re incredibly different perspectives). Part of any musical adaptation’s uphill battle is convincing people that the songs themselves are worthy of being put to film. This part is particularly subjective, which may contribute to why Jesus Christ Superstar is so easily dismissed by many. But here are five reasons why it should be reappropriated as a contemporary classic.
Casting native Hawaiian Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene and African-American actor Carl Anderson as Judas might seem hokey or tokenistic choices, but the impact it provides to the songs and the relationships between the characters is so fascinating and, given the subject matter, ballsy, that it works perfectly. It is a significant critique of the overwhelmingly inaccurate whiteness portrayed in almost every Western biblical adaptation because of the way it reframes its story. Where the Passion is typically laser-focused on Jesus’ journey, Jesus Christ Superstar instead explores the struggle of his three most prominent apostles—Judas, Peter, and Mary—to come to terms with the exactly what the hell happened to their lives as followers of a man who at the time was essentially a cult leader.
Beyond this, the extras in the film represent a vast swathe of humanity in terms of gender and race (and presumed sexuality, if we’re being totally honest; it is musical theatre after all). Note that the lepers Jesus encounters after the destruction of the temple are almost entirely non-white, hands grasping at the white man they’re told is their saviour. They are even shot from a high, wide angle reminiscent of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey (not a few years old at this point), with Jesus as the impenetrable monolith at their centre.
These casting decisions, from leads to extras, are nearly unheard of today in their audaciousness and uniqueness. It’s impossible not to watch this film and think repeatedly to yourself, “Something like this simply couldn’t get made anymore.”
There’s Something About Judas (and Mary)
Carl Anderson as Judas is absolutely phenomenal (also: hottest Judas ever)—he didn’t originate the role on Broadway, but he certainly cemented it as his with this film—giving absolutely everything to depicting Judas not as history’s greatest and most insidious traitor but as a man torn between love of his idea of his Lord, and his lone dissatisfaction with the celebrity that has befell Jesus.
Anderson’s relentless physical performance is an emotionally draining experience as he wrings every ounce of feeling out of his songs. It is a performance for the ages, whatever you think of the film, a cyclonic blast of energy up to the point where Judas finally realises he’s lost. The beautiful way in which the shot that opens “Damned For All Time/Blood Money” slowly finds its focus on Judas, completely broken, is breath-taking. The performance that comes when he reprises it in “Judas’ Death” is even better, and it’s impossible not to be completely shell-shocked by the way the music cuts out as he hangs himself and the camera zooms out to reveal Jesus’ appearance before Pilate occurring below, with Judas’ humanity already completely forgotten.
Conversely, Yvonne Elliman’s Mary Magdalene is humanised in a way we rarely get to see. The musical openly acknowledges Mary’s apparently unrequited love and lust for Jesus rather than burying it to inference as so many have over the years; nor does it hide her profession as part of her identity and journey as an apostle. Her performance is tender in its heartbreak and regret.
Ted Neeley’s Anti-Jesus
If there’s a sticking point for many who watch Jesus Christ Superstar, it is often Ted Neeley’s performance as Jesu. But Neeley’s casting—more pinched than your usual movie star Jesus—and slightly reedy vocal performance feels incredibly deliberate, a sly commentary on the fact that a figure like Jesus can never be as remarkable a reality as we are told he was. Jesus is one of the most boring characters in literary history—the son of a god who dooms him to die, yes, but with little personality outside of that. This reinterpretation shades him with self-doubt at his loss of a normal life and frustration that goes beyond merely trashing a temple.
Note how succinctly in the opening number we are introduced to the idea of Jesus as a human creation, emerging from a sea of the hands of actors involving in the kind of meta-production that frames the film. It’s only when angry that Neeley’s vocal talent has total impact; in “Gethsemane”, he finally releases all of his fear and anguish into the world, essentially embodying the son who can never live up to his father’s expectations. The duality of the lyric “I want to know, I want to know / My god”, begging for a reason but also a simple connection, is conveyed perfectly by Neeley, whose only answered is the eventual reveal of the gorgeous skyline he had been singing to the whole time.
Cinematography and Location
One element of Jesus Christ Superstar I had never really accounted for was its cinematography. Most Bible adaptations use the sparse desert landscapes to solid effect, but Jesus Christ Superstar’s unique context allows for far greater innovation in how the camera moves. Under director Norman Jewison, best known for the likes of In the Heat of the Night, and legendary cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who shot the Indiana Jones films and Julia, among numerous others), the film looks incredible.
This is in part thanks to the locations in Israel where it was filmed, set mostly around the ruins of Advat, which includes the wonderful scaffolding the Pharisees are seen on. The rocky, undulating landscape is shot for its vastness but also its unpredictability, with much of the film shifting between elevated and ground-level locations, often creating fascinating thematic contrasts. Slocombe has a knack for finding the vibrancy in this material, using nature to full effect and favouring medium close-ups on the actors, which feels both impressionistic and open in its shifts between exaggerated distance and relative intimacy. My favourite shot is just a brief one, as Judas runs to the hill where he will hang himself; he barrels along a ridge, silhouetted and dwarfed by the sky.
Music, Camp, Chaos, and Anachronism
It’s easy to watch Jesus Christ Superstar and be amused at its anachronisms, but the story’s deliberate anachronisms allow the film to gesture towards how little modernity has come to resemble anything like the world Jesus purportedly died for. Pilate’s guards hold guns; Judas is herded by tanks and watches as fighter planes scream over his head. The same structure of power exists today, the film is saying. The poor remain poor, as Jesus here says they will, and people like King Herod continue to lead lavish lives unrestricted and unaffected.
On Herod, his campy interlude is the most confusing part of this adaptation, almost not fitting the tone of the film. But Jesus Christ Superstar’s subtext bears out its necessity as described above, and the scene’s jaunty kitsch is the point at which the film’s undercurrent of camp really bears itself out. Obviously camp has been at play in musicals since the dawn of time, but here it gets used as a way to undercut the self-seriousness of the subject matter—as in Life of Brian—as well as refract Jesus as the all-accepting figure the scriptures, but not religious institutions, make him out to be. This queering of the Jesus narrative actively subverts our idea of what biblical adaptations should be or represent, a middle finger to the manipulation of the Christ image to exclusionary ends, yes, but also a fundamental embrace of the inclusive, loving Jesus who is so often forgotten to be the true centre of Christian doctrine.
It would of course be impossible to mention the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, contentious figures in musical theatre, in writing the music and lyrics. The songs are bizarre and wonderful and heartfelt; the film would be but a shadow of itself without them.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a film unlike any other, sometimes as stultifying as it is pleasurably raw and chaotic. But chaos breeds feeling, and in the face of the raft of dour and/or artless movie musicals we have recently suffered through (Les Miserables, Mamma Mia, Nine, etc.) it’s enervating to revisit one that is 40 years old and yet every bit as thrumming with life and passion as it was then, and is more transgressive than anything of its kind today.
Laurence Barber – follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.