Written by Melvyn Bragg and Norman Jewison, based on the rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Norman Jewison
Starring Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham
- Running audio commentary by director Jewison and actor Neeley
- Interview with lyricist Tim Rice
- Photo Gallery
Released by: Universal.
My Advice: Rent it.
Judas (Anderson) is not a happy man. His friend, Jesus (Neeley), is a gifted preacher who talks of love for your fellow man and peace and good will. This simple message resonates with the people who are tired of the standoffishness of Caiaphas (Bingham) and his priests and the oppressiveness of Pontius Pilate (Dennen) and the Romans. But Jesus’ entourage, the apostles, are clamoring for revolution and riot. Jesus tries to calm their fervor but it looks like he starting to believe his own press about being the Messiah, the Son of God. Having a former prostitute, Mary Magdalene (Elliman), close at hand isn’t helping matters either. Judas can see Jesus has doubts, but when he tries to discuss what’s going on, Jesus becomes combative. Matters are coming to a head and Judas has to do something. His decisions and their results will bring to a climax of the legend of Jesus Christ Superstar.
[ad#longpost]One of the most powerful stories ever, the life of Jesus has been depicted in art, mystery plays, and film epics. But could it be made into a rock opera? Obviously lyricist Tim Rice (Lion King, Evita, Beauty and the Beast) and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Starlight Express) know how to put together some tunes and the album they produced was successful, as was the Broadway show that followed. Director Jewison had the unenviable task of taking an experience designed to be either purely aural or behind a proscenium, and translating it to the big screen. He decided to take it back to where it began and filmed on location in Israel. This was a risk since he would not have the control of the environment he would have in a studio. But the area presents the viewer with marvelous timeless vistas with mountains, deserts, caves, and ruins for the actors to sing and dance. It releases the action from a bound set to the wide horizons of the Holy Land. Jewison also uses a dramatic device, a troupe of young performers, to explain why there are a bunch of young hippies singing and dancing in some ruins. The opinion of some at the time that Jesus was the first hippie so Jewison uses that theme to give youthful energy to his production as well as a theme to some of his symbolism.
Another interesting aspect of the production is simplifying the costumes and props, making them more symbolic than historically accurate. By giving the audience a beautiful but sparse environment, Jewison is almost forcing us to concentrate on the characters and the music. The characters are shown to be human with doubts and fears, unlike the faultless icons we normally get. Part of this is not showing any of the miracles Jesus performed. Jesus expresses concern with the direction his followers are going and his own path, but reacts badly when Judas calls him on it. It’s one thing to doubt oneself; no one likes being doubted by others. Mary Magdalene, in her famous song “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” is confused when Jesus obviously cares for her but doesn’t take advantage of her. Characters, like Judas and Pontius Pilate, are shown with more sympathy than in traditional works. On its own merits as a musical, this is a well-done production with solid acting and performances. But your opinion of the movie is more than likely going to be affected by your own views of religion.
The extras are very informative–sometimes. There is a photo gallery and I’m really starting to get irritated with them: would it be so difficult to include captions telling you what you’re looking at? Some can be surmised but without any context, they aren’t that meaningful. The interview of lyrist Tim Rice gives some of the rock opera’s back-story. Rice tells of his early struggles, his first meetings with Webber, and putting together the source material the movie would later be based on. Rice doesn’t really talk about the movie much since he and Webber made the decision to leave Jewison alone to develop his own version, but he does fill in some gaps behind the scenes.
More is filled in by the commentary by Jewison and the man who played Jesus, Tim Neeley. This was obviously a major event for both, especially since Neeley met his future wife during the production. While they had several obstacles to deal with, like the oppressive heat, the production seems blessed with winds occurring on cue and even cooperation with the Israeli army and the local Arab population. With plenty of technical detail and anecdotes about the production and the events surrounding it, the personal touches are what set this commentary apart. Neeley could identity many of the cast by name showing how close these people became in the desert. And while watching himself being crucified in the film penultimate scene, Neeley starts to weep from the memory and the power of the imagery. This is indeed a powerful and at the same time entertaining depiction of Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity without being dogmatic or dwelling on the violence of that event. Definitely worth a rental.