Bold, majestic, and provocative, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera about the final days of Jesus Christ’s life first appeared on the marketplace as a 1970 concept album, the success of which led to stage productions in London and New York, and finally to this film. Offering a challenging psychological interpretation of Christ’s journey from man to messiah, the Rice/Webber narrative focuses largely on the relationship between Jesus, who is portrayed as a good man struggling with extraordinary obligations, and Judas, who wrestles with the question of whether his friend is divine or vainglorious. Furthermore, the Rice/Webber narrative delves into the complex politics of Christ’s time, with Jews and Romans battling for power in Jerusalem while trying to keep Christ and his apostles from upsetting the status quo. This is heavy stuff for a rock opera, but Rice (lyrics) and Webber (music) were up to the task, creating a muscular song cycle filled with distinctive melodies, emotional moments, and with-it phraseology—Scripture for the Woodstock generation.
At its most powerful, the music in Superstar is transporting. Fitting the audacious nature of the source material, director Norman Jewison—whose immediately preceding film was another successful stage-to-screen adaptation, Fiddler on the Roof (1971)—uses a daring visual style for the movie version of Superstar. The film begins with the main cast arriving in a remote desert via bus, wearing modern-day clothing and unloading props including a giant crucifix; this contrivance gives Jewison license to mix artifice and realism throughout the movie, and it humanizes the performers as vessels for delivering their characters’ feelings, rather than pretenders to divinity.
Once the story proper begins with Judas’ anguished number “Heaven on Their Minds,” sung with scalding intensity by Carl Anderson, the tone for the piece is set: Jewison films the number simply, juxtaposing Anderson’s dramatic posturing with the merciless contours of the film’s stark Middle Eastern locations. Rising to Anderson’s level, the whole cast performs Superstar with superhuman energy, resulting in kinetic dance numbers and searing vocal turns; from Yvonne Elliman’s lilting “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (Mary Magdalene) to Ted Neely’s wailing “Gethsemane” (Jesus), one sequence after another radiates passion. In fact, the singing gets a bit too enthusiastic sometimes, with Neely pushing himself so hard it sometimes seems like the veins in his neck are about to explode. Similarly, scenes including Anderson’s rendition of the signature Judas song “Blood Money” veer into melodrama.
But with Jewison’s good taste providing just the right framework—simple sets, sly anachronisms—the best elements of the show dominate, and weaker ones are discreetly obscured. So, while true believers have spent decades arguing about whether Superstar is respectful or sacrilegious, the film’s entertainment value is beyond reproach, and the way the picture examines the charged sociopolitical time in which it was made through the prism of Christ’s life is remarkably imaginative.
Jesus Christ Superstar: GROOVY