JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Director Norman Jewison
Year 1973
Starring Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Robert Bingham, Kurt Yaghjian, Joshua Mostel
Rating G
Run Time 108min
Age Policy

18 and up; Children 6 and up will be allowed only with a parent guardian. No children under the age of 6 will be allowed.

More Info IMDb

This screening is part of our IFC Slightly Off Cinema salute to Best Buds.

From the day JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR was first unveiled, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera was as controversial as it was wildly popular.

Originally released as a two-record set in 1970, the piece was turned into a Broadway hit the following year and was adapted to the screen in 1973 by Melvyn Bragg and Norman Jewison, who would also direct. Jewison hired Hawaiian-born singer Yvonne Elliman, who had portrayed Mary Magdalene on the original album and on Broadway, for the film. Rock idols ranging from Mick Jagger and John Lennon to David Cassidy were reportedly considered for the role of Jesus, but Jewison ultimately decided on Texas-raised singer Ted Neeley, who had understudied the role on Broadway. Carl Anderson, who had performed on the musical's national tour, was cast as Judas, a decision that provoked plenty of heated discussion, since he was African-American.

Produced by Robert Stigwood (the impressario who would go on to make TOMMY, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and GREASE before destroying his hit-maker reputation with the back-to-back disasters of SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND and MOMENT BY MOMENT), the movie was shot on location in Israel. "As a motion picture, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has been given an original semi-modern visual interpretation by Jewison that makes it a fresh work -- separate and apart from all previous versions," noted the movie's press kit. "The director's unique approach to material that electrified the world becomes an entity in itself, along with the music that excites and lyrics that never lose their force and immediacy."

The concept was to combine the ruggedness of the Holy Land landscapes with contemporary flourishes that let everone know this is not KING OF KINGS or THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD. The cast is shown traveling to the set via Partridge Family-style bus, like college students on a sight-seeing excursion. As Judas' guilt over betraying Christ drives him to the brink of insanity in the "Damned For All Time" number, he visualizes himself being chased across the desert by tanks. The temple marketplace that Jesus shuts down sells hand grenades, machine guns, bongs and designer clothes. When Judas delivers the show-stopping "Superstar" finale, he envisions himself in a sort of ersatz-Vegas showroom: He descends into an ancient amphitheater while clinging to a shimmering silver cross and performs in a screamingly early-'70s fringed white jumpsuit, while booty-shaking chorus girls strut their stuff in ivory Afro wigs, skimpy bikinis, fluffy boas and glittery silver eye makeup. Behind them, dozens of heavenly bodies shimmy in tinsel gowns.

For the younger crowd that already embraced Lloyd Webber and Rice's work, these kinds of off-the-wall touches worked: The movie turned a healthy profit for Universal Pictures. For Christian groups that had previously denounced the musical for its incorporation of modern slang and attitudes and its exclusion of Jesus' resurrection, scantily clad go-go girls and trippy hallucinatory sequences only made the movie that much more objectionable and sacriligious. (My mom tried to take me to the movie at a theater in suburban Pittsburgh, but we were scared away by picketers from a local church.)

Reviews were wildly mixed. Roger Ebert called it "a bright and sometimes breathtaking retelling of the rock opera of the same name. It is, indeed, a triumph over that work; using most of the same words and music, it succeeds in being light instead of turgid, outward-looking instead of narcissistic. Jewison, a director of large talent, has taken a piece of commercial shlock and turned it into a Biblical movie with dignity." Newsweek, on the other hand, dubbed it "one of the true fiascos of modern cinema."

But seen today, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is a fascinating piece of pop-culture history and very much a product of the period in which it was made. The same "with-it" elements that critics griped about 40 years ago are part of the movie's irresistibly hippie-dippy charm. While there have been many versions of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR since, Jewison's remains utterly one-of-a-kind. (James Sanford)

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