Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)


colour, musical (rock opera) drama
released: 1973
director: Norman Jewison
starring: Ted Neely, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman
rated: G   (PG would be more accurate, due to the violence – see below.)
length: 1 hr, 48 min

age: 12+

interests: musicals, rock music, theatre, religion, history

This is the famous film version of the rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was directed by Norman Jewison and filmed on location in Israel. I wouldn’t even have thought of screening this movie for my daughter except I came across a VHS copy of it in a thrift store and couldn’t resist. (It cost 10 cents!) She has spent nearly a year obsessed with the musical Hamilton, so I thought I should show her the musical I listened to over and over when I was young. (Since the movie came out when I was just in grade three, I’m pretty sure I saw it years later.)

About that rating… First up, the G rating this movie received in the U.S. and Canada (it’s rated PG and higher in other countries), seems way out of line. There is a significant amount of violence: Jesus receives thirty-nine lashes in a scene so intense Ted Neeley’s mother had to walk out of the screening. The crucifixion too, is harrowing, more through the sound effects and cutting than through any explicit visuals. However the scene that really shocked me was the one in which Judas hangs himself from a tree. It’s fully shown, and could be pretty disturbing for young viewers. Also, be aware there are brief shots of drug dealers in the temple scene, as well as prostitutes – fully clothed but dancing suggestively.

images-5Back to the story… Anyone looking for a traditional life-of-Jesus should probably go elsewhere. From the first shot you know this is going to be pretty unusual. (“Wait. Is that a schoolbus?” my daughter asked, thoroughly confused.) The story is presented as a play-within-a-play; the actors pile out of the bus and assemble the sets, props and costumes for the show they then perform. Historical accuracy is not the aim here – this is an energetic, passionate depiction of Jesus as the first celebrity superstar in history.jcs-13It is, above all, a rock opera. There are no words spoken, the entire story is told in song, and I am happy to report that the music stands up really well. (It helps that seventies-style rock seems to always be in fashion.) Even though the hippie fashions and studly bare-chested men might make kids scoff today, this movie rocks hard enough to keep them watching.

Judas is the most complex character in this telling, and the torment he goes through over betraying Jesus is gripping. The Romans aren’t nearly as villainous as the prophet’s public, who turn from praising him to calling for his blood. The fickle nature of fame is central throughout, as reflected in the title song Judas sings after descending from heaven with a bevy of funky angels:

images-6“If you’d come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in four BC had no mass communication…
Did you mean to die like that?
Was that a mistake or
Did you know your messy death
Would be a record breaker?”

JesusChristSuperstar_Last_Supperimages-2The anachronistic details are also interesting, and good for discussion – at one point Judas is chased by a line of tanks and buzzed by fighter planes, and the Roman guards carry machine guns.

It’s all rather weird and wonderful, just offbeat enough to keep viewers interested. Young viewers may raise an eyebrow at the more experimental artistic choices, but the sheer audacity and energy of all the players carry this show. This was an unexpected winner for us. (We even decided that King Herod provided a comic aside very similar to King George’s in Hamilton.) The reviewer at commonsense media found this movie “dated” and claimed that some may find it simply “silly or frenzied”. I admit that I have a nostalgic soft spot for JCS, but my 11-year-old was quite entertained by it. If nothing else, it’s a vivid snapshot of the wildly exuberant side of the 1970s.



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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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