Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar


Reviewed by: James Benefield

For a 21st century audience, the name Andrew Lloyd Webber is synonymous with a certain kind of musical theatre. His shows are, generally speaking, bold and brash. They tend to lack the intellectual ambition and hard edges of Stephen Sondheim, yet are largely without the warmth and cosiness of something by Alan Mencken. But, by God, has Lloyd Webber been successful.

His first major success was Jesus Christ Superstar. The project started off as a concept album, with lyrics by Tim Rice and lead vocals by Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan. From the outset, this truly was a rock opera. The film version, however, was largely adapted from the Broadway production of the show that premiered in 1971. It’s a sung-through musical, with little dialogue and a lot of very Seventies incidental music. This, combined with some of the rather big hair, may upset viewers of a sensitive disposition.

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The musical casts Jesus Christ as something of a celebrity. His groupies are his apostles, and his celebrity gains him notoriety with the Roman occupiers. It is this notoriety which leads to the betrayal and capture of Christ by the authorities. We see his betrayer Judas (Carl Anderson) wrestle with this decision; from his prologue, and throughout the film, Judas forewarns that Jesus’s actions will earn him and the group the wrong kind of attention.

The treatment is a surprisingly risky move. There is real depth and characterisation to these biblical figures. It landed the musical in some pretty hot water; there was some disagreement on Rice’s interpretation of Judas, in particular. However, the film’s risks pay dividends dramatically.

Aside from the love-it-or-loathe-it brashness of the music, there are two main problems with this adaptation. Centrally, Ted Neeley lacks the charisma to pull off a convincing superstar, let alone a magnetic Messiah. Secondly, there are some jarring directorial choices. Jewison made some bold decisions; the ‘musical within a film’ conceit, in which the entirety musical is staged by Seventies actors on set, is an unnecessary distraction. The climactic rendition of the title song is spoilt by this, as the ground before the crucifix rather distastefully turns into a massive freak-out dancefloor.

It’s a problematic adaptation. If you’re a fan, it might be worth checking out the other adaptations available.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2010
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Jesus Christ Superstar packshot
A musical interpretation of the last days of the life of Jesus Christ.
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Director: Norman Jewison

Writer: Melvynn Bragg, Norman Jewison, Tim Rice

Starring: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen

Year: 1973

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


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