Jesus Christ Superstar is brilliant whichever way you look at it. As far as mainstream musicals go, the use of rock music has always been a rarity. A Rock/Jesus hybrid has never been seen elsewhere. Rock associated with rebellion and anti-conformism is pretty standard, so it’s refreshing to experience this take of Christ’s last week on Earth in the same context. Aside from the unconventional music, taken from a concept album written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Time Rice, Norman Jewison’s film cannot be called disrespectful in the way that many of its more narrow-minded cynics might think. It simply differs in the sense that a troubled Judas Iscariot becomes the central observer, the storyteller. Now to place such a controversial biblical figure at the forefront of the entire feature is perhaps what transforms the whole thing from a hip version of the most told story in the world to an anarchic masterpiece infused with revolution.
From the beginning, it becomes clear that Carl Anderson as Judas lights the way. His eyes guide us with insight, providing another side of the story – a fascinating interpretation which attempts to portray Christ’s right-hand man as more than a greedy traitor. Instead, he puts forward a troubled mind, effectively stressing the complications that lead to the eventual betrayal. Judas’s anguish is illuminated through the film’s soundtrack, complete with music and lyrics that serve to inspire the viewer with new ideas, take him to new heights. Much of the Christian world put this alternative take down as the ‘glorification’ of a villain, but others know better.
The film opens with “Heaven on Their Minds”. This song, recited from a hilltop, looking down at Jesus and his followers, establishes Judas’s outlook and presents his thoughts to the viewer. Accompanied by soulful vocals, a powerful guitar riff and piano, Anderson howls the lyrics of Tim Rice, “You have set them all on fire, they think they’ve found the new messiah, but they’ll hurt you when they find you’re wrong”. It’s fascinating to see the blacklisted apostle presented from this position. Judas is finally humanized in a way that he has never been before. He fears the worst for his friend, but he also fears for the Jewish people. He knows that if Jesus steps out of line, the rest will follow and the majority will suffer as a result. Listen Jesus, don’t you care for our race? Can’t you see we must keep in our place?’
Notably, Judas’s relationship with Jesus is explored, providing even more ground for explanation in terms of Judas’s motives. A lot of the time, the soundtrack includes exchanges between the two men (Carl Anderson and Ted Neeley). In “Everything’s Alright” performed by Anderson, Neeley and Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), Judas passionately argues that the ointment being used on Jesus’s feet is a waste of money. “Woman your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor. Why has it been wasted?” Jesus rebuttals, “Surely you’re not saying that we have the resources, to save the poor from their lot”.
The music presents Jesus as a man who has lost sight of his cause. Idolizing and worship has elevated his status above the social progress he had been working towards. Christ is portrayed as you would expect. He is kind, generous, wise and considerate. All Judas seems to be getting at is how things could be done better, the most logical steps to accomplish what is best for the people. The tension between the two is seen to be increasing as Judas feels that they are losing sight of what matters. As Judas becomes increasingly scared that Jesus is losing control, that he has taken his “talk of God” too far, that the occupiers are going to press down on the occupied, he approaches the priests. “I had no thought at all about my own reward, I really didn’t come here of my own accord”. “Blood Money” kicks in with a fast-paced, funky piece of music that kind of resembles the original Batman theme tune, before Anderson’s vocals take over once again.
Filmed in the early seventies, Jewison’s effort is directly associated with a very specific type of counter-culture — complete with the style, clothing, attitude and music that defined it. Jesus Christ Superstar is certainly critical, and aims to open up a few minds by telling the story in the most radical way possible. The most powerful scene in the film is perhaps the last supper. In this scene, Jesus announces that he’s foreseen his betrayal. Once again, he and Judas lock voices, battling over the electric guitar. Carl Anderson screeches, “you sad, pathetic man. See where you brought us to? Our ideals die around us, all because of you! And the saddest cut of all, someone has to turn you in, like a common criminal, like a wounded animal”. He then runs away with a flock of sheep, only to subsequently hang himself, recognising his role as a pawn in a larger-than-life game.
Jesus Christ Superstar at IMDb
Jesus Christ Superstar at Wikipedia
Jesus Christ Superstar (film) at Rotten Tomatoes
Jesus Christ Superstar (awards won and nominated for) at IMDb