ⓘ Jesus Christ Superstar (film)


ⓘ Jesus Christ Superstar (film)

Jesus Christ Superstar is a 1973 American musical drama film directed by Norman Jewison and co-written by Jewison and Melvyn Bragg based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera of the same name. The film, featuring a cast of Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Bob Bingham, and Kurt Yaghjian, centers on the conflict between Judas and Jesus during the week before the crucifixion of Jesus.

Neeley and Anderson were nominated for two Golden Globe Awards in 1974 for their portrayals of Jesus and Judas, respectively. Although it attracted criticism from some religious groups, reviews for the film were positive.


1. Plot

The film is framed as a group of performers who travel to the desert to re-enact the Passion of Christ. The film begins with them arriving on a bus, assembling their props and getting into costume. One of the group is surrounded by the others, puts on a white robe and emerges as Jesus "Overture".

This story, as told by the performance group, begins with Judas, who is worried about Jesus popularity; he is being hailed as the Son of God, but Judas feels he is just a man who is beginning to believe his own message and fears the consequences of their growing movement "Heaven on Their Minds". The other disciples badger Jesus for information about his plans for the future, but Jesus will not give them any "Whats the Buzz?". Judas arrival and subsequent declaration that Jesus should not associate with Mary Magdalene dampens the mood "Strange Thing Mystifying". Angrily, Jesus tells Judas that he should leave Mary alone, because his slate is not clean. He then accuses all the apostles of not caring about him. That night at the Temple, Caiaphas is worried that the people will crown Jesus as king, which the Romans will take for an uprising. Annas tries to allay his fears, but he finally sees Caiaphas point and suggests that he convene the council and explain his fears to them; Caiaphas agrees "Then We Are Decided". As Jesus and his apostles settle for the night, Mary soothes him with some expensive ointment, but Judas says that the money spent should have been given to the poor. Jesus rebukes him again, telling him that the poor will be there always but Jesus will not "Everythings Alright".

The next day at the Temple of Jerusalem, the council of the priests discuss their fears about Jesus. Caiaphas tells them that there is only one solution: like John the Baptist, Jesus must be executed for the sake of the nation "This Jesus Must Die". As Jesus and his followers joyfully arrive in Jerusalem, Caiaphas orders Jesus to disband the crowd for fear of a riot. Jesus refuses and speaks to the crowd instead "Hosanna". Later, the apostle Simon the Zealot and a crowd of followers voice their admiration for Jesus "Simon Zealotes". Jesus appreciates this, but becomes worried when Simon suggests directing the crowd towards an uprising against their Roman occupiers. Jesus sadly dismisses this suggestion, saying that they do not understand his true purpose "Poor Jerusalem".

Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, reveals that he has dreamed about a Galilean man Jesus and that he will be blamed for this mans death "Pilates Dream". Jesus and his followers arrive at the temple, which has been taken over by money changers and prostitutes "The Temple". To Judas horror and as the priests watch in the background, a furious Jesus destroys the stalls and forces them to leave. Jesus wanders alone outside the city, but is surrounded by a crowd of lepers, all wanting to be healed. Jesus tries to heal as many of them as possible, but is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and eventually gives up, screaming at them to leave him alone. Mary comforts Jesus and Jesus goes to sleep "Everythings Alright ". After Pilate washes his hands of Jesus fate, Jesus appearance transforms, the heavens open, and a white-jumpsuit clad Judas descends on a silver cross. Judas laments that if Jesus had returned as the Messiah today, he would have been more popular and his message easier to spread. Judas also wonders what Jesus thinks of other religions prophets. He ultimately wants to know if Jesus thinks he is who they say he is, possibly meaning the Son of God "Superstar". Judas questions go unanswered, and Jesus is sent to die "The Crucifixion", with ominous, atonal music, with Jesus saying some of his final words before dying.

As the film ends, the performers, now out of costume, board their bus. Only the performers Barry Dennen, Yvonne Elliman, and Carl Anderson who had played Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Judas notice the actor Ted Neeley, who had played Jesus is missing. A shepherd and his flock cross the hillside beneath the empty cross "John Nineteen Forty-One".


2. Cast

  • Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene
  • Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate
  • Josh Mostel as King Herod
  • Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot
  • Ted Neeley as Jesus Christ
  • Larry Marshall as Simon Zealotes
  • Philip Toubus as Peter
  • Bob Bingham as Caiaphas
  • Kurt Yaghjian as Annas

3.1. Production Development

During filming of Fiddler on the Roof, Barry Dennen, who played Pilate on the concept album, suggested to Norman Jewison that he should direct Jesus Christ Superstar as a film. After hearing the album, Jewison agreed.


3.2. Production Casting

The cast consisted mostly of actors from the Broadway show, with Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson starring as Jesus and Judas respectively. Neeley had played a reporter and a leper in the Broadway version, and understudied the role of Jesus. Likewise, Anderson understudied Judas, but took over the role on Broadway and Los Angeles when Ben Vereen fell ill. Along with Dennen, Yvonne Elliman Mary Magdalene, and Bob Bingham Caiaphas reprised their Broadway roles in the film. Originally, Jewison wanted Ian Gillan, who played Jesus on the concept album, to reprise the role for the film, but Gillan turned down the offer, deciding that he would please fans more by touring with Deep Purple. The producers also considered Micky Dolenz from The Monkees and David Cassidy to play Jesus before deciding to go with Neeley. "With the exception of Barry Dennen who played Pontius Pilate and Josh Mostel who played King Herod - for everybody else, it was their first time on camera and first major motion picture. It was a learning process throughout."


3.3. Production Alterations

Like the stage show, the film gave rise to controversy even with changes made to the script. Some of the lyrics were changed for the film. The reprise of "Everythings Alright", sung before the song "I Dont Know How to Love Him" by Mary to Jesus, was abridged, leaving only the closing lyric "Close your eyes, close your eyes and relax, think of nothing tonight" intact, while the previous lyrics were omitted, including Jesuss "And I think I shall sleep well tonight.". In a scene where a group of beggars and lepers overwhelms Jesus, "Heal yourselves!" was changed to "Leave me alone!", and in "Judas Death", Caiaphas line "What you have done will be the saving of Israel" was changed to "What you have done will be the saving of everyone."

The lyrics of "Trial Before Pilate" contain some notable alterations and additions. Jesuss line "There may be a kingdom for me somewhere else, if I only knew" is changed to "if you only knew." The film version also gives Pilate more lines first used in the original Broadway production in which he addresses the mob with contempt when they invoke the name of Caesar: "Well, this is new!/Respect for Caesar?/Till now this has been noticeably lacking!/Who is this Jesus? Why is he different?/You Jews produce messiahs by the sackful!" and "Behold the man/Behold your shattered king/You hypocrites!/You hate us more than him!" These lines for Pilate have since been in every production of the show.

The soundtrack contains two songs that are not on the original concept album. "Then We Are Decided", in which the troubles and fears of Annas and Caiaphas regarding Jesus are better developed, is original to the film. The soundtrack also retains the song "Could We Start Again Please?" which had been added to the Broadway show. Most of these changes have not been espoused by later productions and recordings, although most productions tend to retain the expanded version of "Trial Before Pilate".


4.1. Reception Box office

Jesus Christ Superstar grossed $24.5 million at the box office and earned North American rentals of $10.8 million in 1973, against an estimated production budget of $3.5 million. It was the highest-grossing musical in the United States and Canada for the year.


4.2. Reception Critical response

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 52% based on 23 reviews, with an average rating of 5.86/10. On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 64 out of 100 based on 7 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".

Years later the film was still popular, winning a 2012 Huffington Post competition for "Best Jesus Movie."

Jewison was able to show the film to Pope Paul VI, "who openly loved what he saw. He said, Mr. Jewison, not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity, than anything ever has before." For the Pope, Mary Magdalenes song "I Dont Know How to Love Him" "had an inspired beauty". Nevertheless, the film as well as the musical were criticized by some religious groups. As a New York Times article reported, "When the stage production opened in October, 1971, it was criticized not only by some Jews as anti-Semitic, but also by some Catholics and Protestants as blasphemous in its portrayal of Jesus as a young man who might even be interested in sex." A few days before the film versions release, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council described it as an "insidious work" that was "worse than the stage play" in dramatizing "the old falsehood of the Jews collective responsibility for the death of Jesus," and said it would revive "religious sources of anti-Semitism." Jewison argued in response that the film "never was meant to be, or claimed to be an authentic or deep theological work."

Roger Ebert gave the film three stars out of four and wrote, "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." Conversely, Howard Thompson of The New York Times wrote, "Broadway and Israel meet head on and disastrously in the movie version of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, produced in the Biblical locale. The mod-pop glitter, the musical frenzy and the neon tubing of this super-hot stage bonanza encasing the Greatest Story are now painfully magnified, laid bare and ultimately patched beneath the blue, majestic Israeli sky, as if by a natural judgment." Arthur D. Murphy of Variety wrote that the film "in a paradoxical way is both very good and very disappointing at the same time. The abstract film concept. veers from elegantly simple through forced metaphor to outright synthetic in dramatic impact." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and called the music "more than fine," but found the character of Jesus "so confused, so shapeless, the film cannot succeed in any meaningful way." Siskel also agreed with the accusations of the film being anti-Semitic. Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "The faults are relative, the costs of an admirable seeking after excellence, and the many strong scenes, visually and dramatically, in Superstar have remarkable impact: the chaos of the temple, the clawing lepers, the rubrics of the crucifixion itself." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post panned the film as "a work of kitsch" that "does nothing for Christianity except to commercialize it."

Tim Rice said Jesus was seen through Judas eyes as a mere human being. Some Christians found this remark, as well as the fact that the musical did not show the resurrection, to be blasphemous. While the actual resurrection was not shown, the closing scene of the movie subtly alludes to the resurrection. Some found Judas too sympathetic; in the film, it states that he wants to give the thirty pieces of silver to the poor, which, although Biblical, leaves out his ulterior motives. Biblical purists pointed out a small number of deviations from biblical text as additional concerns; for example, Pilate himself having the dream instead of his wife, and Catholics argue the line "for all you care, this bread could be my body" is too Protestant in theology, although Jesus does say in the next lines, "This is my blood you drink. This is my body you eat."

In the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards by Michael Medved and Harry Medved, Neeley was given an award for "The Worst Performance by an Actor as Jesus Christ", yet Neeley and Anderson received Golden Globe nominations for their portrayals of Jesus and Judas in the film version and had subsequently gone on to recreate the roles in numerous national stage tours.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

  • 2004: AFIs 100 Years.100 Songs
  • "I Dont Know How to Love Him" – Nominated
  • 2006: AFIs 100 Years.100 Cheers – Nominated


5. Soundtrack

The soundtrack for the film was released on vinyl by MCA Records in 1973. It was re-released on CD in 1993 and reissued in 1998 for its 25th Anniversary.

The soundtrack for the film was released in the U.S. on vinyl by MCA Records MCA 2-11000 in 1973, as: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR / The Original Motion Picture Sound Track Album.


6. Remakes and related productions

Another film version was made for video in 2000, starring Glenn Carter as Jesus, Jerome Pradon as Judas, and Renee Castle as Mary Magdalene. It was shot entirely on indoor sets including graffiti on the wall. Composer Webber has stated in the making-of documentary that this was the version closest to what he had originally envisioned for the project. He chose Gale Edwards to direct after seeing her interpretation of the musical in Dublin, which featured a more modernistic and sinister approach than the original stage productions.

In a 2008 interview with Variety magazine, film producer Marc Platt stated that he was in discussions with several filmmakers for a remake of Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 2013, a Blu-ray "40th Anniversary" edition of the film was released, featuring commentary from the director and Ted Neeley, an interview with Tim Rice, a photo gallery and a clip of the original trailer.

In 2015, Neeley announced the upcoming release of a documentary entitled Superstars: The Making of and Reunion of the film Jesus Christ Superstar about the production of the film.