Happy Easter — Jesus Christ Superstar, an amazing and controversial rock opera made by an agnostic Canadian (that everyone thinks is Jewish but isn’t)
40 years ago, an amazing film was made deep in the Israeli desert a few months before the Yom Kippur War. I’m blown away at the ties between this opera and Deep Purple, hockey, Walt Disney, Evita Peron and Murray Head!
Jesus Christ Superstar was made by an amazing and underrated Canadian director, Norman Jewison. He has a Jewish sounding name, but he’s actually Episcopalian and has claimed that isn’t a very devout person. In fact, in his large body of films, only one or two really deal with spirituality in any sense.
His body of work is spectacular and deal with everything from racism to corruption to the glorification of violence. Here is a short list of films that he made — The Cincinnati Kid, Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, Fiddler on the Roof, Jesus Christ Superstar, … And Justice for All, Agnes of God, Moostruck and Other People’s Money. Probably his most famous film came after Jesus Christ Superstar, an extremely controversial indictment of hockey and corporations. It’s not Slap Shot. Can you guess what it is?
Jesus Christ Superstar, based on the stage play, was filmed entirely in the deserts of Israel in Negev, Avdat and the Dead Sea, a few miles from the Egyptian border (though Israel at the time controlled the entire Sinai).
Norman Jewison was an extremely hot director who had hit after hit. His last film had been Fiddler on the Roof, about Jews in Ukraine (further deepening everyone’s conviction Jewison was actually Jewish).
He was not a religious man, but people involved with Fiddler on the Roof asked Jewison to make a film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Jewison at first was reluctant, but after listening to the album, agreed to do it.
Jesus Christ Superstar was the third musical penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Their first play was something no one’s ever heard of (written when Webber was only 17), but their second musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, likewise based on the Bible, was a big hit, and is still in production today. Amazingly, Webber was only 22 when he wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar. Rice was only 25 when he wrote the lyrics.
Of course, everyone knows Webber went on to write Evita!, Phantom of the Opera and Cats. Tim Rice wrote the lyrics for Evita!, later wrote the lyrics for Chess (with Murray Head) and then wrote the lyrics for several stage productions based on Disney cartoons (The Lion King, The Beauty and the Beast).
Jesus Christ Superstar was a perfect storm of talent. An astonishingly young and athletic cast and playwrights, being put in the hands of an established Hollywood director at the height of his powers. I don’t know why, I’ve never liked Godspell, but I love this opera. Jewison’s production has some weird quirks in it that are fun — Chromed helmets for the Romans, tanks, tinted glasses for King Herod, and of course, white afro wigs and go go boots for angels.
Stealing the film is the very athletic Carl Anderson, a fantastic singer who had some minor hits in the 70s. However, Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar was his biggest role. He returned to the role many times over well into the the early 2000s. Unfortunately, he died of leukemia in 2004.
The play and film are controversial for many reasons, but the biggest reason is its sympathetic treatment of Judas. Judas is portrayed as Christ’s muse, his inner conscience, attempting to steer Christ in the right direction and deeply distraught over the growing cult surrounding him. “You’ve begun to matter more than the words you say,” Judas implores Christ in the opening song, “Heaven on Their Minds.” The cult of Jesus becomes more alarming a few numbers later in “Simon Zealotes” (where the term Zealot comes from), where Simon urges Jesus to lead his followers into war against Rome.
Judas was also controversial because Carl Anderson is black. Why was a black man cast as one of the most evil men in the Bible. Either Tim Rice or Webber supposedly said, “because he gave the best audition.”
Ian Gillan played Christ on stage, and Jewison wanted him for the film. But, Gillan was also the lead singer of Deep Purple and they were in the middle of a worldwide tour, so instead, they turned to Gillan’s understudy, Ted Neeley. Like Anderson, Neeley essentially made his career on Jesus Christ Superstar, returning to the role many times in several revivals.
You might recognize two of the songs from the musical. The overture “Jesus Christ Superstar” is very familiar, and was even used on a TV show for a while about athletes competing in silly games for prize money. The song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was a minor pop hit in the early 70s, and while the context was about loving Christ, it could also be interpreted as someone not knowing how to love in a relationship.
My favourite numbers are Heaven on Their Minds, Simon Zealotes, Jesus Christ Superstar, Damned for All Time, The Temple and Lepers and Gethsemane (Ted Neeley hits some serious high notes here, for a guy who was supposedly an understudy.), where Jesus expresses his doubt and frustration with God.
Jesus Christ Superstar was very successful. It was the eighth-largest grossing movie of 1973 (in today’s dollars and ticket prices, would have made well over $100 million). Jewison made an even more successful movie in 1975. He was disgusted with the violence of hockey (and if you think hockey today is violent, it was really bad in the 70s and 80s), and wrote a science fiction screenplay about a corporate-run orgy of violence, called “Rollerball.” I’ve always thought it was funny that Jewison went from making a movie about Jews in Ukraine to Jesus Christ, to one of the most violent movies ever made at the time, but that’s how incredibly versatile he was.
So, Jesus Christ Superstar.
You don’t have to believe. Just listen to the performances and watch the amazing choreography.
[Poop, I discovered that several weeks ago, several of these videos had been removed from YouTube. They were HQ videos and had been posted by the same person. Perhaps there were some copyright issues. I was able to cobble together videos from most of the various numbers, but the quality varies from video to video now. Oh, well.]