Hippies, tanks, and Jeez: why Jesus Christ Superstar is a film worthy of your time
Spoiler alert: he dies at the end.
I was raised a Catholic. Coming from the North of Portugal, it was almost inevitable, even though my parents — having always taught me the importance of questioning everything (which gave me my fair share of problems at school) — never forced religion on me: we’d never go to church (at least during service) and in spite of them having put me in a Catholic school (which was oddly very belief-free, since I even had Hindu girls in my class), it happened mainly due to the quality of the education I would be receiving. Nevertheless, I always found religion(s) fascinating, and eventually created my own system of spiritual beliefs that included stuff borrowed from Paganism (Celtic heritage is also a very strong influence in the North of Portugal), Buddhism, and some details of Christianism — at least for the “do to others what you’d have them to do unto you” part, which I always found a good motto to live by.
Whatever one’s beliefs, Bible-related films were pretty much unavoidable during Christmas, and especially Easter. I never had the patience for Cecil B DeMille epics like The Ten Commandments, but I vividly remember the first time I watched Jesus Christ Superstar. I was a seven-year-old with an already huge fascination with all things music, and from beginning to end my jaw just dropped. Sure, the catchy songs were the main culprit for my absolute and immediate surrender, but over the years I’ve rewatched it over and over again, bought the soundtrack, and as I grew older and more aware of film and music history, I’d always end up finding yet another detail that would knock me to the ground.
Let’s get a couple of things clear: one, is that I’m not by any means an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I hate most of his work, and though I consider myself to be a musical/rock opera enthusiast (I starred in a professional production of Rent with a West End director some years ago), most of his stuff people usually get excited about — Evita, The Phantom of the Opera, even Cats — just makes me yawn. The other is that I’m talking about the 1973 version directed by Norman Jewison, with music conducted by André Prévin — not the disgraceful direct-to-video 2000 remake.
First and foremost, Jesus Christ Superstar boldly distances itself from similar films production-wise; filming on location amongst the Roman ruins of the Middle-Eastern desert with little to no props to fall back on and with an immense natural beauty as a background constitutes in itself a major challenge, especially if we remember those stunning yet painful (for the actors, that is) long shots in which a character seems to be completely isolated from any form of human contact. The uncanny articulation between the story the film is telling — because it is indeed a story — and the era in which it was filmed is absolutely brilliant, with wardrobe choices navigating between Jerusalem in 30 AD and San Francisco in 1972.
This ambiguity is best summarised by the superb anachronisms happening throughout the whole film, and that includes the use of machine guns by Roman soldiers, as well as the appearance of tanks and military aircrafts — though these last two elements only seem to be visible to Judas in a sort of metaphorical epiphany that emphasises his central role. The choice of having one of the most hated Bible characters setting the tone and perspective for the story — one can argue Jesus Christ Superstar to be a “gospel according to Judas” kind of film — was not only very controversial at the time but also provided an important questioning of the ordinary readings made of the episode: while we see Christ as too oblivious — and even bemused — of the craziness created around him, Judas (brilliantly played by the late Carl Anderson) emerges as the voice of reason, warning him about the dangers of his growing importance and visibility.
To emphasise Judas’s centrality to the plot, his songs are not only some of the best but also soundtrack most of the film’s key moments: from opening number ‘Heaven On Their Minds’ to the closure provided by ‘Superstar’, passing through the betrayal sequence of ‘Damned For All Time/Blood Money’, he is given some of the finest, bolder tunes of the play.
Since we’re talking music, and putting the obvious catchiness of the songs aside, the primary element that steadily carries us throughout the piece is the foundational role the bass and the drums play. While many numbers seem to be carried spine-wise almost exclusively by bass (‘Could We Start Again Please?’, ‘Superstar’, and ‘What’s the Buzz?’, the last two showcasing a strong link to funk and soul melodics), the drum work is no less impressive and signals a tight connection with jazz-like patterns — something that makes perfect sense if you have in mind the music choice for the crucifixion scene.
Being a rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar maintains the grandness of this type of show (with all the brass and strings it implies) while bringing forward a couple of elements from the early ’70s rock vanguards, such as fuzz-filled guitars (the 39 lashes sequence from ‘Trial Before Pilate’), psych-coloured riffs (‘Then We Are Decided’, which was written specifically for the film), and keyboard-driven hooks (‘Judas’ Death’). I won’t, however, elaborate on how great singers and dancers the whole cast are (some of them came from the original theatre production, and others even from the original concept album, in which Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillian played the lead), nor will I discuss matters related to skin-colour choices. Yes, we all know that Jesus Christ was not a blue-eyed blond. But Judas probably wasn’t black either, nor did Mary Magdalene have Hawaiian ascendance.
Jesus Christ Superstar reveals a series of little surprises that may go unnoticed on a first watch but take centre stage once you see them. One of these is the freeze moment when Christ and the apostles sit for the last supper, which mimics Da Vinci’s painting of the same name with the exception of Peter’s and Bartholomew’s positions being switched. With their relationships emulating a hippie commune, the dynamics between the apostles emerge as surprisingly natural and unforced; the way they comfort one of them after Judas rushes away evokes a brotherhood that had been notably absent before the hippie era while also making a veiled reference to drug use, since they appear to act as if they were helping someone get through a bad acid trip.
Psychedelia, though not visible through kaleidoscopic colours or special visual effects, is unmistakably present via the sometimes vertiginous plan choices, with top-down perspectives marrying weird, almost fisheye camera angles. The boldest camera moves are nevertheless counterposed by what my video teacher liked to call “biblical shots”, i.e., aerial shots usually requiring hundreds of extras (or not, for a greater impact) that provide an omnipresent connection to what is typically perceived as a religious film.
Hand-held cameras are also prominently used, notably to reinforce confusion and/or desperation (‘Judas’ Death’), lending a touch of contemporaneity through direct cinema to the film. Another possible reference to psychedelia resides in the abrupt cuts during ‘Gethsemane’, in which several zooms and close-ups of a series of famous paintings, from Bosch’s to El Greco’s, tactfully evoke the visions Christ might be having about his death.
But music and film dimensions aside, what is truly revolutionary about Jesus Christ Superstar is the way it distances itself from most films and TV series that have been made on the subject. The film belongs to a somewhat parallel lineage of controversial Bible-related works like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in the way it depicts Jesus as a man, since in no moment of the film we see any proof of his godlike status: he performs no miracles (although king Herod begs him to do so in what is one of my favourite sequences of the film, aesthetically and theme-wise very close to Carmelo Bene’s Salomè), he has no transcendental visions that we are aware of, and — the most important of all — he doesn’t resurrect in the end — an usually unspoken requirement from a film portraying crucifixion.
The weight of his spirituality, which is otherwise given by the fact of him being the only main character we neither see coming off the bus in the beginning nor getting back on in the end, happens exactly through that approximation to the palpable world combined with the parallels established between his fame and the rise and fall of a pop idol — something Judas dutifully points out during ‘Superstar’ when he says, “if you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation/ Israel in 4BC had no mass communication.”
Religious propaganda has always given me the creeps, mostly because I’m obviously against all types of brainwashing and the ignorance that establishes the basis for it to happen, and it’s no secret that organised religion (as well as institutions in general) has been responsible for a great deal of human-caused tragedies throughout the centuries. The thing is, I also don’t believe in discarding something just because of its remote association with something I’m assumedly suspicious of; by being an absolute sound and vision masterpiece while offering a different perspective of History — because this is ultimately History, since Jesus Christ’s deification might have never been proved but several documents from numerous sources around Asia do confirm the existence of a man possessing those same characteristics and engaging in political-religious activities — Jesus Christ Superstar is a film that stands byitself.
The theme either speaking to you or not, it’s undeniable that the much-needed questioning it exerts on the normalised perspective of one of the central subjects of western civilisation adds an extra layer of importance. So if you happen to catch it this Easter while zapping through Ben-Hurs and The Robe s, give it a chance; it might be a bit dated (pun intended), but its cinematic and musical qualities deserve more credit than they usually get.
Originally published at The 405 on March 22nd 2017.