The above clip is not the trailer for this movie, but rather the opening Overture sequence. I decided to share this because when seeing the film again last night, it brought chills to me in my seat and made me so happy that we had made plans to see this film in a theater on easter Sunday. This is my daughter’s favorite musical, and we have watched it every year since she was in high school and maybe even before that, I can’t quite remember. Two years ago, at the start of the Pandemic, she was already living in Texas and I was still packing up the house at easter time. We did a simultaneous watch on physical media and shared through Facebook Live. This was much better.
There have of course been multiple performers of the parts in numerous productions over the years, but it does not seem to me that anyone else could be as definitive as the two leads in this filmed version of the Broadway rock opera. In the 1980 book “The Golden Turkey Awards” by Harry and Michael Medved, Ted Neely won the award for The Worst Performance by an Actor as Jesus Christ for his role in the film adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. This is maybe the most unjust slight I have heard from film critics. Neely was tremendous in the role and the rampage at the temple and his performance in the Gethsemane number matches the vocal performance extremely well. Because Carl Anderson was so dynamic, Neely may be seen by some as a Jesús secondary to Judas. The play/album/concept was written to be from Judas’ perspective, but I feel that Jesus comes through very effectively because of Neely’s performance. The rest of the world seems to agree with me because Neely has played the role for over fifty years on stage in dozens of tours.
Carl Anderson as Judas has a voice that comes right out of 1973. He sounds soulful with a rough edge and could easily have been an R n B singer with any of the great seventies soul bands. Both he and Neely come from a theatrical background and their performances reflect that the roles they are playing are to be sung.
Norman Jewison, who has made multiple Academy Award Nominated Best Pictures (one was also a winner) worked closely with choreographer Robert Iscove to get the exuberant dance scenes to pop in a non stage setting. The use of wipes, dutch angles, freeze frames all integrated creatively with the setting makes the film much more elaborate than any version of the stage play. I think the set, which mostly consists of natural rock formations and ancient ruins, was used really effectively. There is a terrific long shot of several columns that dancers move out from behind in a synchronized move that reveals them in the background that I particularly admired. The sensibility of the era was clearly based in the hippy culture, in spite of the traditional Christian story. The costumes and dances all reflect the times more accurately than a series of pictures of “Jesus People” would have.
I like the rock themes that Andrew Lloyd Webber twists into Broadway show tunes, and the lyrics of Tim Rice are reasonably respectful of the story that is being told. The final shot of the cross on the his in the sunset comes complete with a shepard walking through the backlight in the foreground. That was an unplanned mistake that offeres a slight spiritual coda to the whole show. I can hardly wait till next year.