The film version of the musical stage play following the story of Jesus Christ’s final weeks when he is betrayed by Judas and crucified for his teachings.
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“To conquer death, you only have to die.”
With the release of three musicals in the 70s influenced or about the life of Christ (Godspell, Tommy, Jesus Christ Superstar), the story of a Messiah seemed to correlate with many issues facing America in this decade: persecution, war, justice and peace. In Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar, a character in the film sums it up by stating, “One thing I’ll say for him. Jesus is good.” Taking its source material from the stage rock opera (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice), the film follows Jesus (Ted Neeley) and Judas (powerhouse Carl Anderson) as they both deal with their ruptured relationship caused by Judas’ betrayal. Joining the two men are the Apostles and an ever devoted Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman).
The film grabs the past and splices it with the present, creating a visual contrast that is both comical and jarring. The opening shot reveals a bus in the desert where a band of actors unload costumes and props, preparing for a performance. Period-piece robes are mixed with jeans, machine guns with whips, army tanks with miles and miles of rocky hills. Filmed entirely in Israel, the film is chock-full of breathtaking shots of the desert, gardens, ruins, hills and sunsets. Jewison uses zoom, repetition, slow-motion and extreme long shots to emphasize or contrast images with the songs.
The songs are the only source of dialogue in the film and come at a rapid pace. Sometimes going on for too long, they are briefly separated by a score or silence, which turns out to be incredibly effective. The dancing is energetic and fluid, emphasizing that this man - this Superstar - is new, inspiring and fresh. The cast is unbelievably talented, showcasing amazing vocal and dancing skills. Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene exhibits a clear, sweet voice singing “Don’t Know How to Love Him” with heart, sadness and hope. Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot steals scenes with his strong vocals and powerful acting. Ted Neeley as Jesus brings a quiet, angry struggle to the screen, creating a Jesus that is not just the Son of God, but also an ordinary, conflicted man.
The last ten minutes of the film slams together the past and present as stage lighting, spotlights, contemporary costumes and disco/rock choreography is contrasted with Jesus carrying the cross towards a mountain. Judas sings,
“If you'd come today you could have reached a whole nation.
Finally, as Jesus dies on the cross, the cast of actors, dressed in contemporary clothing, solemnly pile onto the bus. The sun sets behind an empty cross. The singing stops, the music stops and a lone shepherd walks across the screen. Haunting and gorgeous.
A film musical with some of the most breath-taking shots to grace the screen, Jesus Christ Superstar is entertaining and moving. Webber and Rice create memorable and poignant songs that give well-known characters a deeper understanding. Boasting a truly talented cast, sets and costumes, the film is a beautiful interpretation of the last few weeks of Christ’s life told with strength and sincerity.