Jesus Christ Superstar is a 1973 American musical drama film directed by Norman Jewison and jointly written for the screen by Jewison and Melvyn Bragg; they based their screenplay on the 1970 rock opera of the same name, the libretto of which were written by Tim Rice and whose music was composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The film, featuring a cast of Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham, Larry Marshall, Josh Mostel, Kurt Yaghjian and Philip Toubus, centers on the conflict between Judas and Jesus during the week of the crucifixion of Jesus.
|Jesus Christ Superstar|
|Directed by||Norman Jewison|
|Edited by||Antony Gibbs|
|Music by||Andrew Lloyd Webber|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Budget||$3.5 million (estimated)|
|Box office||$24.5 million|
Neeley, Anderson, and Elliman were nominated for Golden Globe Awards in 1974 for their portrayals of Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene, respectively. It attracted criticism from a few religious groups and received mixed reviews from critics.
The film's cast travel by bus to the Israeli desert, in order to re-enact the Passion of Christ with modern-day clothes and props. They assemble their props, get into costume, and dance to the film's overture as Carl Anderson, already in character as Judas Iscariot, walks away from the group.
Judas is worried about Jesus' popularity; He is being hailed as the son of God, but Judas feels he has too much faith in his own message and fears the consequences of their growing movement. He calls out Jesus' association with the likes of Mary Magdalene (historically accused of being a prostitute), as well as the fact that Jesus does not give to the poor despite having a lot of money. Meanwhile, temple priests including Caiaphas, Annas and the Pharisees are worried that the Romans will see Jesus's popularity as an uprising and all agree he must be executed.
When Jesus and his followers joyfully arrive in Jerusalem, he rejects both Caiaphas' orders to disband the crowd and the suggestions of Simon and fellow Zealots to direct the crowd towards an uprising against their Roman occupiers. Jesus then visits a temple where he is furious to see it has been taken over by money changers and prostitutes and, to Judas's horror, destroys the stalls and forces the vendors to leave. While Jesus wanders in the desert and heals a leper colony, Judas goes to the priests and expresses his concerns, along with his worries about the consequences of betraying Jesus. Taking advantage of Judas' doubts, the priests offer him money for leading them to Jesus. Judas reveals that Jesus will be at the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night.
At the Last Supper in the garden, Jesus expresses skepticism about his apostles loyalty, stating that Peter will deny him and Judas will betray him. A bitter argument between Jesus and Judas ensues, as Judas angrily accuses Jesus of losing sight of their cause. Judas leaves and returns with guards, fulfilling his betrayal, while Peter denies being with Jesus to members of the populace. The guards take Jesus to Caiaphas, who finds him guilty of blasphemy. He is then sent to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, but since he does not deal with Jews, Pilate sends Jesus to King Herod. Herod urges Jesus to perform various miracles, but dismisses him as a fraud when he does not. Blaming God for giving him the role of the betrayer, Judas is overcome by grief and regret and hangs himself.
Jesus is taken back to Pilate, who believes Jesus is delusional but has committed no actual crime, yet he is pressured by the crowd to condemn Jesus to death. Confused and enraged at Jesus' inexplicable resignation and refusal to defend himself, Pilate realizes he has no option but to have Jesus executed to subdue the angry masses. Jesus is led up to Golgotha, where he says his final words before dying on the cross. The film's cast, now out of costume, reunite and board the bus to leave, with Barry Dennen, Yvonne Elliman and Carl Anderson the only ones who notice that Ted Neely, who played Jesus, is missing.
During filming of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Barry Dennen, who had a minor role in the film, provided a concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to Norman Jewison, Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), where Dennen voiced Pilate. At that time, the LP, despite its title song being a hit single, was "met with a massive dose of British indifference, even condescension", recalled Webber, and was thought of by Fiddler on the Roof producer Patrick Palmer as an "obscure album from England" when Jewison first obtained it. Jewison described himself as "curiously moved" and "flooded with exciting visual images" when first hearing the record, amazed by its ability to execute so much without spoken lines.: 216 He first publicly expressed interest in directing a film based on the album in an interview at the New York premiere of Fiddler on the Roof: "I could see it as an exciting innovative movie just as it was—just music and lyrics, no dialogue.": 216
Jewison, after finding out MCA Records owned the film rights, contacted Lew Wasserman for the chance of directing an film adaptation of the musical. Although other directors were considered, Jewison's past filmography plus his blueprint for the film influenced Universal to hire him.: 216 A meeting between Jewison, Webber, and Universal Pictures executive Ned Tanen soon followed. Weber agreed to the film project, citing Jewison's experience with Fiddler on the Roof, an adaptation of a musical with religious themes.
Work on the script began with drafting from Tim Rice. His vision was an epic film in the style of Ben-Hur (1959), summarizing his workflow as figuring out "which massive visual effect accompanied which song". However, Jewison's concept differed, and thus Rice's draft was scrapped. Alongside Melvyn Bragg, Jewison wrote a screenplay as a pastische that combined biblical and modern elements of culture, particularly with its theater group framing device. Bragg, who had already established himself as a television writer, was a co-writer of the screenplay. He described entering the project as "a sort of fluke", getting signed only after a colleague asked "Would you like a go?" Summarized Bragg, "all the good bits were what [I] worked on", although Bragg did provide input to Jewison about what he perceived to be the director's overuse of crowds in shots. Bragg and Jewison wrote the script while scouting locations, as moving around deserts in Israel while the concept album played on a tape recorder immersed them in the film's setting.
|Ted Neeley||Jesus Christ|
|Carl Anderson||Judas Iscariot|
|Yvonne Elliman||Mary Magdalene|
|Barry Dennen||Pontius Pilate|
|Larry Marshall||Simon Zealotes|
|Josh Mostel||King Herod|
Jesus Christ Superstar was the first film credit for all actors except Dennen and Josh Mostel. The cast consisted mostly of actors from the Broadway show, with Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson starring as Jesus and Judas respectively. Neeley had played a reporter and a leper in the Broadway version, and understudied the role of Jesus. Anderson also understudied Judas, but took over the role on Broadway and Los Angeles when Ben Vereen fell ill. Along with Dennen, Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), and Bob Bingham (Caiaphas) reprised their Broadway roles in the film (Elliman, like Dennen, had also appeared on the original concept album).
According to casting notes Jewision wrote on a stationery at Beverly Hills Hotel, he considered Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Barry Gibb, Robert Plant, and Ian Gillan for the titular character. Gillan, who played Jesus on the concept album, turned down Jewison's offer because he thought he would please fans more by touring with Deep Purple. The producers also considered Micky Dolenz (from The Monkees) and David Cassidy to play Jesus. This was all before when, in 1971, Jewison drove from Palm Springs, California to Los Angeles to view Neeley on stage in a musical adaptation of The Who's Tommy (1969), after an invitation from Neeley's agent. Neeley did not appear the night Jewison arrived, as he was taking a break. However, Neeley, wearing Levi's clothing and a fake mustache and beard, encountered Jewison at a motel the next morning to apologize about his absence from the performance, his rationale being illness. Following a 20-minute meeting, and without seeing Neeley perform the part, Jewison recommended his production partner Pat Palmer that "I had a hunch that I had found our Jesus".
In responding to a question from the Vatican Press about why Jewison cast a black actor for Judas, the director responded that Anderson "tested along with many others in London, and as always happens, the film really told us what to do. The test was so successful that there really wasn't any doubt in my mind at all that he was the most talented actor to play the role".
Shooting of Jesus Christ Superstar took place at more than 20 locations in four Israel camp bases, those being Jerusalem, Dead Sea, Beersheba, and Nazareth; the most utilized location was Herodium. The budget was set at just under $3.5 million, partially supported by the Israeli government; in addition to a 23.5% rebate on import of foreign currency, some senior officials, who were trying to start an Israeli Film Centre, funded the project. Jewison, in return, wrote a piece for Variety promoting Israeli areas for shooting locations. As he wrote, "there is a spirit in the country and among its people that grabs you, and if you spend any time there you will never be the same." Elliman, Neeley and Anderson each received $16,500 for their roles, while Jewison was paid $150,000, a reduced fee in exchange for 10% of the film's worldwide profits.
Shooting began on August 18, 1972, in the caves of Beit Gubrin (today the Beit Guvrin National Park), following days of cleaning up fecal matter from birds and bats. Used for the segments for "What’s the Buzz?", "Strange Thing Mystifying", and "Everything's Alright", the location was chosen by Jewison to make Jesus and his Apostles look like an underground movement of rock artists; in fact, he cast little-known rock musicians for the Apostles, and only two of them had prior experience in film. Production then moved the West Bank, which had been occupied by Israeli following the Six-Day War. Choreographer Robert Iscove recalled, "Arabs with machine guns came over the hill, pointing at us. They were from a neighbouring village and there had been some tiff that had nothing to do with the actual war." For most sequences, Iscove determined the location on the first day of its choreography, and the dancing and camerawork would be improvised based on the location. "King Herod's Song" and "Superstar" were the only ones that had their locations planned before production commenced. The abandoned Nabataean city of Avdat was used for the scenes with the Roman priests.
For most of the actors, who were secular hippies, filming the musical submerged them in the religious setting. During breaks, they played the concept album loudly, read Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1908), and had volleyball matches the teams being "Judas" and "Jesus". The 46-year-old Jewison, when not filming, rarely interacted with the cast members. Neeley wrote that, during filming of the crucifixion, the cast felt like they were walking on the path Christ took, and cried at Neeley's performance on the cross.
As producer Robert Stigwood was not yet known to have formed "The Robert Stigwood Organization," Jesus Christ Superstar is not generally considered a production of RSO Films, the movies-and-television arm of that organization. Nor, in spite of Andrew Lloyd Webber having composed the musical score, is the film commonly identified with "The Really Useful Company," through which Lloyd Webber was doing most of his stage and screen work as of late November 2020. The film is considered a Universal Picture, since Universal did fund and distribute it.
Like the stage show, the film gave rise to controversy even with changes made to the script. Some of the lyrics were changed for the film. The reprise of "Everything's Alright", sung before the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" by Mary to Jesus, was abridged, leaving only the closing lyric "Close your eyes, close your eyes and relax, think of nothing tonight" intact, while the previous lyrics were omitted, including Jesus' "And I think I shall sleep well tonight.". In a scene where a group of beggars and lepers overwhelms Jesus, "Heal yourselves!" was changed to "Leave me alone!", and in "Judas' Death", Caiaphas' line "What you have done will be the saving of Israel" was changed to "What you have done will be the saving of everyone."
The lyrics of "Trial Before Pilate" contain some notable alterations and additions. Jesus' line "There may be a kingdom for me somewhere, if I only knew" is changed to "if you only knew." The film version also gives Pilate more lines (first used in the original Broadway production) in which he addresses the mob with contempt when they invoke the name of Caesar: "What is this new/Respect for Caesar?/Till now this has been noticeably lacking!/Who is this Jesus? Why is he different?/You Jews produce messiahs by the sackful!" and "Behold a man/Behold your shattered king/You hypocrites!/You hate us more than him!" These lines for Pilate have since been in every production of the show.
The soundtrack contains two songs that are not on the original concept album. "Then We Are Decided", in which the troubles and fears of Annas and Caiaphas regarding Jesus are better developed, is original to the film. The soundtrack also retains the song "Could We Start Again Please?" which had been added to the Broadway show and to stage productions. Most of the other changes have not been espoused by later productions and recordings, although most productions tend to retain the expanded version of "Trial Before Pilate".
1972–1973 was a period of declining interest in religion worldwide, but also filled with movies with religious themes, such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Siddhartha, Greaser's Palace, Marjoe, and The Exorcist. David W. Pomeroy, in a piece for Theology Today, attributed the trend to studios capitalizing on counter-cultural spirit movements, such as the Jesus movement. The 1970s decade also saw Jesus films become more flamboyant in works like Jesus Chris Superstar, Godspell, and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Gospel Road, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Godspell, in particular, deviated from the Cecil B. DeMille drama style typical of mainstream religious films prior.: 215
Jesus Christ Superstar grossed $24.5 million at the box office and earned North American rentals of $10.8 million in 1973, against an estimated production budget of $3.5 million. It was the highest-grossing musical in the United States and Canada for the year.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 52% based on 25 reviews, with an average rating of 5.93/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Jesus Christ Superstar has too much spunk to fall into sacrilege, but miscasting and tonal monotony halts this musical's groove." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 64 out of 100 based on 7 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four, calling it "a bright and sometimes breathtaking retelling" of the source material. He praised it as an improved version of the "commercial shlock" of the source material, "being light instead of turgid" and "outward-looking instead of narcissistic". He applaud the portrayal of the titular character as "human, strong and reachable", only achieved elsewhere by The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
Conversely, Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote, "Broadway and Israel meet head on and disastrously in the movie version of the rock opera 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' produced in the Biblical locale. The mod-pop glitter, the musical frenzy and the neon tubing of this super-hot stage bonanza encasing the Greatest Story are now painfully magnified, laid bare and ultimately patched beneath the blue, majestic Israeli sky, as if by a natural judgment." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote that the film "in a paradoxical way is both very good and very disappointing at the same time. The abstract film concept ... veers from elegantly simple through forced metaphor to outright synthetic in dramatic impact." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and called the music "more than fine," but found the character of Jesus "so confused, so shapeless, the film cannot succeed in any meaningful way." Siskel also agreed with the accusations of the film being anti-Semitic. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The faults are relative, the costs of an admirable seeking after excellence, and the many strong scenes, visually and dramatically, in 'Superstar' have remarkable impact: the chaos of the temple, the clawing lepers, the rubrics of the crucifixion itself." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post panned the film as "a work of kitsch" that "does nothing for Christianity except to commercialize it."
Jewison was able to show the film to Pope Paul VI. Ted Neeley later remembered that the pope "openly loved what he saw. He said, 'Mr. Jewison, not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity, than anything ever has before.'" For the Pope, Mary Magdalene's song "I Don't Know How to Love Him" "had an inspired beauty". Nevertheless, the film as well as the musical were criticized by some religious groups. As a New York Times article reported, "When the stage production opened in October 1971, it was criticized not only by some Jews as anti-Semitic, but also by some Catholics and Protestants as blasphemous in its portrayal of Jesus as a young man who might even be interested in sex". A few days before the film version's release, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council described it as an "insidious work" that was "worse than the stage play" in dramatizing "the old falsehood of the Jews' collective responsibility for the death of Jesus", and said it would revive "religious sources of anti-Semitism". Jewison argued in response that the film "never was meant to be, or claimed to be an authentic or deep theological work".
Tim Rice said Jesus was seen through Judas' eyes as a mere human being. Some Christians found this remark, as well as the fact that the musical did not show the resurrection, to be blasphemous. While the actual resurrection was not shown, the closing scene of the movie subtly alludes to the resurrection (though, according to Jewison's commentary on the DVD release, the scene was not planned this way). Some found Judas too sympathetic; in the film, it states that he wants to give the thirty pieces of silver to the poor, which, although Biblical, leaves out his ulterior motives. Biblical purists pointed out a small number of deviations from biblical text as additional concerns; for example, Pilate himself having the dream instead of his wife, and Catholics argue the line "for all you care, this bread could be my body" is too Protestant in theology, although Jesus does say in the next lines, "This is my blood you drink. This is my body you eat."
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Score. It lost to The Sting. The film was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. It lost to American Graffiti. Golden Globe nominations went to Ted Neely and Carl Anderson for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, and Yvonne Elliman for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical. They lost to George Segal and Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class.
In the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards by Michael Medved and Harry Medved, Neeley was given "an award" for "The Worst Performance by an Actor as Jesus Christ". Neeley went on to recreate the role of Jesus in numerous national stage tours of the rock musical.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
The soundtrack for the film was released in the U.S. on vinyl by MCA Records (MCA 2–11000) in 1973, as: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR / The Original Motion Picture Sound Track Album.
|Australia (Kent Music Report)||25|
Exclaimed Hyupsung University's Dr. Jayhoon Yang, "Jewison and Bragg's Jesus Christ Superstar has its own creativity, bringing the Jesus film business a fresh inspiration and a new break-through.": 2 According to Jaime Clark-Soles, Jesus Christ Superstars "continues to captivate and provoke viewers", with perspectives ranging from it being a "mere cultural artifact", to being "a political statement that still enjoys some relevance", to being "an existential journey of sorts".: 145
Atom Egoyan, an Armenian-Canadian director most known for The Sweet Hereafter (1997), repeatedly viewed Jesus Christ Superstar at the Haida Cinema in Victoria, British Columbia. As he explained, its cinematography and production design was a learning experience for him: "The way the camera is moving, the way it moves in time to the music, the way the film is cut, the production design, the framing device … it was just brilliantly conceived as this pageant within a film."
Jesus Christ Superstar is a passion narrative that is the most similar to the Gospel of Mark's portrayal of the story. In addition to the introduction reflecting 1:4 of the Gospel of Mark in terms of foreshadowing the crucifixion, the screenplay encompasses many themes of Mark, such as "way (hodos)", "blindness of the disciples", "servanthood" and "thinking the things of God".: 1 : 141
The film mostly focuses on the conflict of its characters, especially Jesus and Judas.: 141 The characters are either not based on the Gospels or are composite characters of various gospels; Judas, for example, is derived from the both the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of John's portrayal of him.: 142, 144 Mary's character, on the other hand, is different from any scripture, "a mulatto whore who is a site of contest between two alpha males", wrote Clark-Soles.: 144
Judas plays the role Satan did in the Gospels, as an opposition to Jesus' mission. This is symbolized by Judas being black and wearing red, and Jesus being white and wearing a light robe.: 142 : 142 Within the 1970s context the film was released in, Judas is a revolutionary that is part of a grassroots movement against "the man" of society, his pragmatism rendered in his worries about the movement getting carried away.: 142 However, he is confused, which opens the door for the greedy Romans to take advantage of his sympathy for the down-trodden.: 142
Jesus also quarrels with the Apostles, who are portrayed as self-absorbed, only enjoying their association with a sacrificial figure like Jesus.: 143 As they sing at the last supper, "always hoped that I'd be an apostle / Knew that I would make it if I tried / Then when we retire we can write the gospels / So they'll still talk about us when we've died".
A highlight of critics and scholars is the human presentation of the biblical figures, particularly Jesus.: 143–144 Summarized Clark-Soles, the film "helps us to imagine these people as real people, with mixed motives, bodies that sweat, yearn for sex, get sleepy after too much wine, and die".: 144 Jesus is seen as impatient, tortured, and irritated, lashing at the Apostles for being "so thick and slow" in one scene.: 143 In public meetings, he gives appreciative looks at the crowd; however, in one instance where the Romans enter in the middle of a dance sequence, Jesus' mood switches and sings, "Neither you Simon, nor the 50,000; nor the Romans nor the scribes, nor doomed Jerusalem itself, understand what power is, understand what glory is, understand at all, understand at all".: 143 Following "The Temple" sequence, he encounters an overwhelming amount of those needing to be healed, and is only able to heal a few of them.: 143 The turning point for Jesus is "Gethsemane", where he laments that he has become "sad and tired" after being "inspired" to form a movement, and lashes out at God: "Show me there's a reason for your wanting me to die [...] Watch me die. See how I die.": 143
Kim Paffenroth felt Judas and Mary had the most depth of all characters, even more than Jesus: "their songs are haunting or jarring, and their depictions are passionate, much more so even than the depiction of Jesus, who seems rather too passive, confused, and weak."
Jesus Christ Superstar is one of Jewison's many productions to have betrayal as a primary theme. Another major theme is religious authorities colluding with the government for greed.: 140 The Romans, focusing on keeping their state together for a long time over the truth, crucify Jesus after noticing his challenges to the political, economic and religious establishment, such as Jesus destroying modern paraphernalia sold at "The Temple".: 140–141
Jesus Christ Superstar is different from other Jesus films in terms of its little accuracy to, as well as modernization of, the original text in terms of costumes, staging and behavior.: 1–2 Jesus Christ Superstar has most of the characters reflect the hippie movement and youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s in terms of their dances and contemporaneous dresses, save the garb-wearing titular character.: 1–2  There is tension created in the film's idiosynchronicity, which imply that what social issues were prevalent in the era of Jesus are still important in the present.: 144 The opening depicts the cast riding a bus, with Arabic and Hebrew language on it alluding to the Six-Day War, and excitedly carrying the cross out of it.: 141 The market in "The Temple" has ancient good such as birds and sheep sold alongside mirrors, weapons, grenades, guns, female bodies, and drugs.: 140
Although interpreting biblical scripture to comment on contemporaneous political social issues is a common aspect of religious films, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of few to encompass several subjects at once. There is an anti-war and Vietnam war sentiment, with machine-gun-armed soldiers in military pants, combat shoes, and army helmets, thieves trading grenades, machine guns and drugs, and Judas encountering tanks and fighter jets.: 2 : 142 The Israeli locations was interpreted by Paul V. M. Flesher and Robert Torry as referencing the Mideast conflict. The use of a black actor for Judas adds a civil rights movement component, most display in his suicide where he hangs himself with a rope on a tree, reminiscent of the lynchings associated with the era.: 142 Clark-Soles analyzed race playing "a crucial, if ambiguous, role in the film", as a white and black actor portray figures that, in the first century, were of the same Jewish race.: 142 In "Heaven On Their Minds", Judas asks Jesus, "Don't you care for your race?": 142
In 2013, a Blu-ray "40th Anniversary" edition of the film was released, featuring commentary from the director and Ted Neeley, an interview with Tim Rice, a photo gallery and a clip of the original trailer.
In 2015, Neeley announced the upcoming release of a documentary entitled Superstars: The Making of and Reunion of the film 'Jesus Christ Superstar' about the production of the film.
It is thus surprisingly and unexpectedly powerful when his Gethsemane plea for the cup to pass from him issues in a rapid, proleptic montage of traditional Christian images of the Crucifixion, many of them drawn from one of the most fearsome of such paintings, the Isenheim Altar of Matthias Grünewald.
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