With Easter 2020 somehow spanning a four-month period, it’s always an ideal time to dust off Norman Jewison’s 1973 version of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. After the failure of Cats, and with In The Heights getting pulled from summer release, it looks like Disney’s stay-at-home release of Hamilton will be 2020’s big show, and we’re promised cinema-staging rather than theatre; Jewison’s hot take on the story of Jesus is a good example of getting a tricky proposition over the line cinematically.
What’s the buzz? There’s a whole lot cooking right here, with a script from British cultural maven Melvyn Bragg and photography from Douglas Slocombe, soon to lens the Indiana Jones trilogy. Slocombe manages some striking compositions here; the framework sees the actors arrive on a desert location in a mini-van wearing 70’s dress, but most of the key sequences play out with a conventional Biblical look. The notion is that we’re watching actors playing out the later stages of the life of Christ, and it’s hard to carp when the compositions are both simple and striking. Jewison likes a flourish, and brief curtain-raisers involving rows of tanks and fighter-jets are strikingly integrated.
The actors are not familiar; they’re the Broadway cast, with no transplanted stars or household names, and sing without dubbing or autotune. Performances, notably Ted Neeley as Jesus, have been mocked, yet he got a Golden Globe nomination and in truth, there’s not much wrong with the cast; Carl Anderson’s funky Judas, Josh Mostel’s Josh gad -prototype Herod and Yvonne “If I Can’t Have You” Eliman all make the required impression.
Like Alan Parker’s Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar does a neat job of keeping he narrative flowing via non-stop music and zero dialogue, with even the interludes well-polished. But it’s Tim Rice’s lyrics which illuminate the film with shafts of genuine wit; lines like ‘Could Mohamed move a mountain, or was that just PR?’ still come up sharp, as does a glib suggestion that Jesus will ’escape in the final reel’. Rnemies who plot against Jesus reluctantly confer; ‘I’ll say one thing for him, Jesus is cool.’
Jesus Christ Superstar should not be taken as gospel; it places a decidedly 1970’s hippy-dippy slant on the story of Christ, and those who find the rock-opera concept offensive should return to their favourite, unfiltered texts. But Britain is still, ostensibly, a Lloyd-Webbier worshipping community, and Jesus Christ Superstar had the musical chops to embed itself in our popular culture so firmly that we don’t even know it’s there. The seeds of much of today’s musical theatre, as well as Monty Python’s Life of Brian are here, but anyone trying to figure out how to stage a movie musical can learn from the keep-it-simple-stupid approach here; Jewison’s Jesus is more than ‘just another scripture-thumping hack from Galilee’.