by Chris McGinty
In 1973 there was a film made of “Jesus Christ Superstar” directed by Norman Jewison. It’s a very quirky movie, but beautifully shot. Perhaps unfortunately, the cast is different. Ted Neeley very much looks the part of Christ (as we believe him to look) but doesn’t have the same vocal range as Gillan. There was a book that came out back in the 1980’s called The Golden Turkey Awards (think Rotten Tomatoes but in paperback) and it claimed Neeley’s performance to be the worst performance in the role of Jesus Christ. In spite of that his acting was pretty good. Carl Anderson played Judas in the film, and I’m always torn about which vocals I prefer, Anderson’s or Head’s. Anderson is a very good actor though, so he is one of the joys of the film version.
When I say the movie is quirky it’s simply that there are many anachronisms in the film. The Roman soldiers are armed with machine guns, and are at one point piloting tanks. The angels who speak to Judas, as he becomes and unwitting part in the downfall of Jesus Christ, are represented by fighter planes. In the temple many of the wares being peddled are modern items such as sunglasses and the like. If you watch closely (and this is a brilliant shot from a symbolic standpoint) you will see one of the turnstiles has many of the world’s currencies for sell. And you get to see Christ break shit.
Another brilliant use of symbolism references the fact that this was based on a play. The movie opens with a bus driving in a remote area. The bus stops and you see all the players exit the bus in their normal clothing. They get into costume, set up props, and put on stage makeup. The only person you don’t see in all of this is Christ, who is risen up by the players when the overture reaches the crescendo of “Superstar.” Somewhere in this, Judas, now in character has wandered away, and as “Heaven on Their Minds” starts we find him sitting alone in the mountains, and the story begins.” After Christ has been crucified (sorry, I should have said Spoiler Alert) we once again see the players in their normal clothes (except for Christ) boarding the bus to leave. Judas is the last one to board the bus, and looks regretful of everything that has transpired.
All this may seem an odd way to present the story, but if you look throughout the lyrics there are many references that are anachronistic as well. In “The Last Supper” Jesus says, “You liar! You Judas!” using a phrase which means “traitor” based on the very person Christ is speaking to. Another line spoken by a Roman in “This Jesus Must Die” is “Where do we start with a man who is bigger than John was when John did his baptism thing?” This refers to John Lennon’s declaration that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but in the context of the story refers to John the Baptist. “Superstar” itself is a song in which Judas questions Christ from the afterlife of his choices, “If you’d come today, you could have reached the whole nation. Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.”
Now having viewed the links above I’d like to quickly refer you to a great parody from Mr. Show. Check… well, you’ll get it soon enough.
In spite of being such a huge fan, I’ve only seen the play live once. It was either 1989 or 1990, and I saved up a couple of paychecks from my part time dishwashing job and took my grandfather. The first time my grandfather saw it was with my parents. They took him and my grandmother to see it. My grandfather loved it, and my grandmother hated it, and the same held true for the movie.
One thing I do remember is that my grandfather’s favourite song was actually one of the two new songs in the film, “Could We Start Again Please.” This takes place after Christ has been taken into custody, and Peter has denied him three times. The song is sung by Mary Magdalene and Peter, and then a chorus of the apostles and followers. This is a well shot, albeit melancholy scene, but the song is quite amazing. The line, “I think you’ve made your point now, you’ve even gone a bit too far to get the message home,” may have been the influence for a line from Marilyn Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar.” The line from “The Man that You Fear” is, “Pinch the head off, collapse me like a weed, someone had to go this far,” and it almost sums up all the hate and controversy that surrounded Marilyn Manson in those years.
All in all, what I think “Jesus Christ Superstar” does well is takes a story that is amazing in its own right, true or not, and brings an emotion to it that is lacking in the source material. The whole thing is written from a standpoint of devotional awe, and of course records the teachings of Christ. But you have to imagine that the whole ordeal would have had to be trying to the people involved. The play brings out what some of these trials may have been.
Another odd bit of trivia (and believe me this is trivial) is that I had a mental image of what George Lucas looked like, and it wasn’t flattering, I guess. Also based on the much better vocals of King Herod from the original recording I had a mental image of what that character would look like. If you want to see what my image of King Herod was look at a younger picture of George Lucas. If you want to see what I thought George Lucas looked like watch this painful performance of an otherwise good song. It was meant to be played off as amusing, but the vocals are horrible compared to the original recording.
In fact, I’ll go on record as saying the original recording from 1970 is probably the best all around, though the live performance I saw featured some great vocals. I have the program somewhere in my storage shed, and one day maybe I’ll give credit. I was particularly impressed by Caiaphas and wish I could remember the actor. Mary Magdalene was actually played by the understudy the night we attended, and she was awesome too, and again I wish I had her name. This was in Sacramento, like I said around ’89 or ’90.
Unfortunately, this is not for everyone. Musicals are very glitchy with pop culture. I don’t even like a whole lot of them. While I moderately like some, I think the best musical stories are written as albums first: Pink Floyd’s: The Wall; Queensryche’s: Operation Mindcrime; and Marilyn Manson's: Antichrist Superstar as three examples. But if you’re ever in the mood for something a little more Broadway, I would suggest that you stop off at the Jesus Christ Superstar attraction first.