"Jesus Christ Superstar" (1973) Review
Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or
Did you know your mess death would be a record-breaker?
It's always fascinated me that the big anthem of Jesus Christ Superstar's title, "Superstar," is sung by Judas Iscariot. There's not a lot written in the Bible about history's greatest traitor, but Jesus Christ Superstar builds a character for him regardless. There's actually a lot to unpack in reviewing any incarnation of Jesus Christ Superstar, but the analysis of Judas as a character is one of those things you have to start addressing up front. This incarnation, a film adaptation shot primarily in Israel, is no different, but Judas will keep coming up in this review a lot. He's the most interesting thing about the musical, a musical that is most easily described as the following:
An anachronistic rock opera about the last week of Jesus Christ's life told mostly from the perspective of Judas Iscariot.
There's no way not to address how insane of a pitch that is, and various stage productions of the musical have interpreted the visuals in a wild variety of ways. The newest popular incarnation aired on TV last night on NBC with John Legend as Jesus (which was a damn good incarnation), and that production seemed to choose a pop-punk/goth-ish aesthetic for the majority of its characters. Again, anachronism is built into the DNA of the musical, and since the incarnation I'm reviewing was made in the early 1970s, the cross pollination of hippy aesthetic with disco clothing was kind of inevitable.
The hardest part of the production to get onto film though is the musical's deliberate staging of artifice. On stage, you're not supposed to build elaborate temples and period accurate sets. You're supposed to call attention to the fact it's a group of performers, and the film surprisingly manages to maintain that spirit in the first few minutes. The primary cast literally pulls up in the middle of the desert on a bus loaded with props, and while the overture plays, the cast gets off the bus and gets into costume.
The end result is a hodgepodge of influences that are constantly at odds with each other, but have a distinct and campy charm all of their own. It might be a bit of a mess, but there's not a lot on film like the 1973 adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar, and I'm grateful that something so truly weird exists.
The story stretches roughly from Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion. The singing roles are spread among Jesus Christ (Ted Neeley), and his followers, Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson), Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman), Peter (Philip Toubus), and Simon (Larry Marshall), the Pharisees Caiaphas (Bob Bingham) and Annas (Kurt Yaghjian), and the authorities of Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) and King Herod (Josh Mostel). Most of the singers here perform pretty well, but the weakest link as a performer is definitely Ted Neeley as Jesus. He's not outright bad, but he feels like a weak presence in basically every scene he's in. Even during the "The Temple" he manages to feel small while smashing up a marketplace (that being said, what's inside the marketplace is straight up some of the funniest anachronisms in the movie, so the sequence is still great).
But while this is Jesus' story, he's not the one telling it. This is where Carl Anderson's performance as Judas comes into play. Anderson is a larger than life presence in the film, and his voice is straight up the best of any performer in the film. No one sounds as good as him, and since Judas has the best songs in the musical to begin with, every scene he's in works like gangbusters. And by default, Carl Anderson is still one of the greatest interpretations of Judas on film.
One of the biggest blindspots in reinterpreting the Bible on film is Judas Iscariot. Almost every story that deals with Jesus' crucifixion on film never even attempts to explore the character, the psychology, or anything that might be interesting about Judas. He shows up at The Last Supper to betray Jesus, gets his money, and hangs himself. That's The only other film I can think of that offers another view of Judas is The Last Temptation of Christ, but that's... A whole other can of worms that I'm not going to open up here (long story short, The Last Temptation of Christ is arguably one of the most controversial films of all time and its reinterpretation of Judas is easily the most ambitious ever conceived on film, but there's more going on in that movie in terms of reinterpretation that's worth discussing in a review of that film specifically).
It's worth saying that Jesus Christ Superstar's version of Judas is mostly made up, with no Biblical text to support the idea that he's been Jesus' "right hand man all along," but this Judas is a hybrid of sorts. He's not just the betrayer, but the modern perspective of the Christ mythology that wishes to spread its message, but believes that talk of miracles and powers have overshadowed the ideology. It's a bold choice, but not as bold as bringing Judas back as an angelic presence after his suicide to sing the title song.
By offering that perspective, Anderson is among the greatest Judas' on film, which is kind of weird the more I think about it. Whatever, at least someone this charismatic and fun has the distinction of being in the pantheon, so that's cool.
I love this version of the musical, but it's not without its flaws. The campiness is super over the top and almost never sobers up at any moment, and while I'm totally into that, if you're not into the camp aesthetic and tone, this movie probably isn't going to win you over. While the movie takes advantage of gorgeous desert locales and ruins, it does tend to look cheap and slap-dashed together, but that's kind of the point, but it can still be distracting. The whole movie runs on a weird logic of the characters technically being performers, but not really, and it's borderline surrealist at a certain point. The film forces you to enter a mindset where you just have to roll with certain punches.
But the most important aspect of a musical is in the name: the music. This was one of the many collaborations of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it's my personal favorite of their collaborations. The "Superstar" song is an all time rock opera great, but other songs like "Heaven on Their Minds," "Simon Zealotes," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Damned For All Time/Blood Money," and "King Herod's Song" are great too.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a campy cult classic that ranks among my favorite musical films. It's not one of the all-time greats, but it's super fun and delightfully weird in its own right.
Oh, and while I've spent most of this review building up how awesome Judas is, "King Herod's Song" is one of those things you just have to see to believe. Just saying.