Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday Thoughts ‘13—Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) ***

G, 108 min.
Director: Norman Jewison
Writers: Melvyn Bragg, Norman Jewison, Tim Rice (book, lyrics, based on the rock opera by), Andrew Lloyd Webber (music, based on the rock opera by)
Starring: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham, Larry T. Marshall, Joshua Mostel, Kurt Yaghjian, Paul Thomas

Yeah, yeah, yeah yeah. I know. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is not a Christmas movie. The birth of Jesus isn’t even mentioned in it. It’s all about his death. But, he’s not entirely unrelated to the subject of Christmas. In fact he’s the reason, as they say. So I’m counting it.

Now, beyond the fact that this isn’t really a Christmas movie, it’s a rather weird movie. Adapted from the hit Broadway musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Norman Jewison’s 1973 film is high concept, possibly too much so for today’s audiences. That’s one of its appeals to me. I’m always turned on by the prospect of broadening people’s horizons through film.

A true rock opera, “Jesus Christ Superstar” tells of Jesus’s final days, after he’s become renowned in Jerusalem as a prophet, and to many the Son of God. Judas, however, is growing sick of the hypocrisy he thinks he sees in Jesus’ own self worth. All of this is told through song, with no dialogue whatsoever. And I have to admit; even several days after seeing it, I’m still having trouble getting some of the tunes out of my head. What’s the buzz, indeed?

I’ve never really been much for musicals; however, the past decade of movie musicals has gone a way toward changing my opinion of them. When they’re done in the rock and roll spirit as what Jewison, Melvin Bragg, Rice and Webber have produced here, I’m much more open to them. The free spirited nature of it, the almost Brechtian admission that this is a bunch of people pretending the story, rather than some sort of earnest sale of people singing their emotions for real, helps the concept sit better with me.

There are some rocky transitions to be found here for sure. I don’t know whether that’s due to the film cutting portions of Rice’s book for time or if that’s the source material. However, if you’re going to do a musical about the crucifixion, depicting it as an acting troupe gathering in the desert to perform it is pretty much the only way to really pull it off without getting my eyes rolling. 


Anonymous said...

Hey Andy!
So I teach a class on the Development of the American musical and I "force" my students to watch this film version. They hate it. Mostly because of what you say in the review. It's difficult to follow at times and filled with anachronisms which they have difficulty with. They also have issues with the nonlinear structure. I love that you say you are trying to broaden some horizons with this review and I'm doing the same thing by requiring my students to watch this. Any thoughts about how I can introduce this film or talk about the film to undergraduates in order to make the experience more palatable for them? (BTW, this is Nathan Stith!)

Andrew Wells said...

Wow. A real question in a blog's comments section. O rare occasion! That's actually a pretty tough one, since as one of my Penny Thoughts I didn't really put as much thought into this as I do with my full length reviews.

As a Development of the American musical class, I would assume this one is watched in context with some other films. The fractured nature of musicals, or more specifically the rock opera format that Lloyd Webber's work gave rise to has always been a sticking point for me. Last year's film version of Les Miserables would've blown me away if it hadn't had the structural insufficiencies inherent in the source material. As it was I still liked it quite a bit, but back to the beginnings of this musical style.

I'm not familiar with the Broadway version of JCS, but since Jewison used some of the original cast, I'm guessing it doesn't differ much. I would also assume that this is why you chose this filmed version of a musical to show your students.

I think the strength of the show lies within its base concept that this isn't a depiction of the real events, but a staging of it. In fact, it was a concept album before its was made into a musical. More importantly it's portrayed as a somewhat amateur staging, as if it was put together by fans of the album who wanted to realize it as a play.

They grab whatever wardrobe they can find, much of it modern costume, much of it seeming to come from different productions. This is a ragtag outing that is being depicted. That also relates heavily with their subject matter. Christ's teachings were very ragtag. Prophets were everywhere to be found, kind of like film criticism bloggers today, each trying to hawk their ideas. I guess putting it in these modern terms would help. Paralleling the approach of the production to the actions of Jesus is a good way to sell its rather shaky structure.

Also, there's the music. The events depicted here are kind of like a Greatest Hits of Jesus's life, although this would have to be volume 2 (or even 3). Greatest Hits compilations never give a true or even picture of an artist, so the compilation here jumps back and forth along Jesus's time line to get all the hits, but not necessarily in the proper chronological order. It's going for the overall effect, maximum impact as opposed to total accuracy.

That could also tie into the amateur production. The cast is like a cover band of Jesus's life. They don't cover whole albums (although The Flaming Lips have been doing that quite impressively lately) they mostly cover the well known stuff, with a few hidden gems in there.

I don't know if this is any help to you at all. I apologize it if seemed as if I was trying to teach you something here. I was merely just thinking it out as I wrote it. I'm sure your knowledge on this film is vastly greater than mine. I've never had to tackle teaching the younger generation directly.

As the iPod generation, I would hope relating it in terms of popular music might help. Maybe even coming from a playlist approach to spark an element of relation for them. I don't know. But I appreciate that you thought I could help. Let me know how it goes. And if there's another angle from which you'd like me to look at it, don't hesitate to ask.