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Jesus Christ Superstar(1973)
The Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera about the life and death of Christ is brought to the big-screen after success on Shaftesbury Avenue and Broadway. The story of Christ's (Ted Neely) last week on Earth is told by a group of travellers who arrive in modern-day Jerusalem on a tour bus. Events are seen from the perspective of Apostle Judas, who betrays Jesus to the Judaic religious leaders in return for thirty pieces of silver. Songs include 'I Don't Know How to Love Him', 'Hosanna', 'Herod's Song' and the now-famous theme tune.
For more about Jesus Christ Superstar and the Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray release, see Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on April 29, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, Josh Mostel, Bob Bingham (I)
Director: Norman Jewison
» See full cast & crew
Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray Review
The Rock Gospel According to Judas.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, April 29, 2013
Observant Christian believers may not have exactly experienced The Second Coming in the early seventies and some were in fact downright outraged by what they perceived as unabashed sacrilege, but others experienced something of a minor miracle at least when not one but two modern musical pieces about Jesus became immensely popular, capturing the imaginations of the usually recalcitrant young and storming the pop charts. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar debuted as a bestselling two LP album in 1970, but it didn't take long for wise impresarios to figure out the piece was tailor made for the stage, especially after the album made it all the way to the vaunted Number One position on the Billboard charts, spawning several hit singles in the process. At more or less the same time, a "kinder, gentler" and much smaller scale musical opened off Broadway and quickly became a major hit. Godspell was a decidedly more whimsical approach to its iconic subject matter, but it, too, spawned a major hit single ("Day by Day") and quickly established Stephen Schwartz as one of his generation's leading new writers. The original Broadway staging of Jesus Christ Superstar was a gargantuan and glitzy affair directed by Tom O'Horgan, the man who had shot to fame with the original version of Hair, which itself had begun off Broadway but soon was such a fantastic success it matriculated to a Broadway house for the bulk of its multiyear run. (O'Horgan's followup, Dude, featuring a score by Hair's Galt MacDermot and Gerome Ragni, is one of the most notorious flops in Broadway history. It was a really bad year for MacDermot who saw his other big musical of 1972, Via Galactica, go down in even bigger flames than Dude had just a few weeks later.)
O'Horgan was not a man known for his subtlety, and a lot of people were shocked at the outrageous nature of some of O'Horgan's staging ideas, though virtually everyone seemed to agree that the Lloyd Webber-Rice score was amazing and that several performances (including Ben Vereen as Judas) were impeccable. (Ironically that version's Jesus, Jeff Fenholt, became as famous for a confusing parable—sorry, couldn't resist—involving Black Sabbath and Fenholt's supposed collaboration with them as well as for his televangelism as for anything to do with the role that first brought him to wide public attention.) The film musical was in pretty steep decline by the early seventies, with not even major Broadway hits being regularly optioned the way they used to, but with both Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell having that elusive built in youth appeal, they both seemed like sure bets. In a touch of perhaps intentional irony, Norman Jewison, who had just made a film about another persecuted Jew with his cinematic version of Fiddler on the Roof, signed on to direct, working with several people who had either been associated with the original Broadway production or subsequent tours (and in some cases with the original concept album as well). Jewison perhaps wisely jettisoned O'Horgan's hyperbolic approach for a stripped down but still quietly flashy conceit that utilized actual historical Israeli ruins as settings while mixing in a number of contemporary elements.
In what would seem to be an intentional tip of the hat to Godspell, the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar uses a framing device of people performing the Passion. We see a tour bus arriving at an historical Israeli site, a bunch of hippies (remember, this was the seventies) disembark, and to the anachronistic sounds of Lloyd Webber's slightly dissonant Overture, begin to assume their various roles. Jewison immediately separates Judas (Carl Anderson) from the pack. As the so-called "love children" frolic around Jesus (Ted Neeley), Judas looks on suspiciously, perhaps enviously, from a distance. It is one of Jesus Christ Superstar's great achievements that it presents what has been called "the greatest story ever told" resolutely from Judas' point of view, and this was of course decades before the lost Gospel of Judas was uncovered and reconstructed.
Hopefully it's not necessary to give an in depth plot summary for Jesus Christ Superstar and we can instead focus on some of the decisions, both good and bad, made for this film version. The arid desert settings for much of the film are really interesting and add an air of verisimilitude, but they also clash, no doubt intentionally, with some of the other more modern production design elements. While Jesus is clad in a plain white robe and some of his acolytes wear apparel that is at least relatively historically accurate looking, Judas for example starts the film in a florid red crushed velvet outfit that frankly could have been ripped from any given Blaxploitation film of that era while other supporting players wear perfect examples of early seventies hippie attire. Jewison's costume designer Yvonne Blake clad the Romans in something akin to hippie chic meets science fiction, with bright red t-shirts and shiny metal helmets. Then there's the puzzling scaffolding that has provoked quite a bit of commentary through the years. In the commentary with Jewison and Neeley ported over from the DVD release of the film, they don't really get into the "philosophy" behind its use and instead simply remark how "cool" it looks. Later in the film tanks show up as if Jewison himself were involved in a science fiction time travel film.
Those of you who have read my The Phantom of the Opera at The Royal Albert Hall Blu-ray review know that I have (at best) mixed feelings about Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I have always been adamant that in my not so humble opinion Jesus Christ Superstar is a work of towering genius from a musical perspective. Lloyd Webber gracefully weaves together quasi-classical ideas that range from atonality (that clanging tritone that is so jarring in the Overture and at other times in the piece) to almost Prokofievian moments of orchestral grandeur to just flat out great songcraft (how brilliant is it that "Everything's Alright", a song about taking it easy, is in the notoriously difficult 5/4 time signature, which nonetheless sounds appropriately effortless?). Rice's lyrics are facile without being overly pretentious, and at times really smartly reveal the interior lives of the characters.
Perhaps surprisingly one of the biggest problems with this Jesus Christ Superstar is the larger orchestral forces and new arrangements which came courtesy of the usually reliable Andre Previn (who frankly may have been a little out of his element here). In this instance, however, either through the influence of Jewison or producer Robert Stigwood, he tinkers with Lloyd Webber's original work in unnecessary ways, adding unneeded elements (the brass at the end of the Overture, the stupid reconfiguring of the great piano lick in "Heaven On Their Minds") which serves no other real purpose than to make an auditory statement of "hey, guess what, I'm here, too." To be fair, Previn's added percussion element gives the score new color and drive in several key moments.
The performances here, especially those of Neeley, Elliman and Anderson, are first rate. Both Neeley and Anderson had toured and/or understudied in stage versions of Jesus Christ Superstar and are ideally cast for their roles. If Anderson frankly doesn't have the vocal smoothness of Ben Vereen (or the gritty rock edge of Murray Head from the original concept album), he is an amazingly visceral performer who brings Judas' distrust and conflict ably to the screen. Neeley does well in what amounts to yet another "surfer dude" Jesus concept and brings an athletic vocal quality to the role. Elliman, who voiced Mary Magdalene on the original concept album, is a lovely presence, comforting and romantic without being outright erotic. The supporting cast is quite colorful, including a nice turn by Josh Mostel (Zero's son) as Herod.
What tends not to work most of all are the very elements which Jewison seemed to be proudest of when he recorded his commentary track, namely the weird blending of ancient and modern dress, sets and props. One assumes Jewison was going for some sort of "timeless" quality but instead simply ended up with a mishmash that is neither here nor there and which now seen from the vantage point of some forty years (wow!) just looks awfully dated more than anything else.
Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray, Video Quality
Jesus Christ Superstar is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal Studios with an VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer in 2.36:1. Since this is a Universal catalog release, why don't we just cut to the chase and ask the question which will be on most fans' minds: was excessive DNR applied? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. The film retains a healthy amount of grain, especially noticeable in the wide vista shots where a lot of sky is present, as well as in the nighttime and dimly lit sequences. One might hope this is a case of Universal having "learned their lesson", but my personal hunch is they just didn't think this release was "important" enough to "improve" it. The image here boasts decent fine detail, especially in close-ups, though the softness that has been attendant in every home video release is still evident, though somewhat mitigated. There is slightly more softness to some of the extreme wide shots. Colors are a bit on the anemic side at times but generally accurate looking. There is some very minor ringing that is especially noticeable when characters are outside.
Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Jesus Christ Superstar features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 that more than adequately recreates the theatrical exhibition's four track stereo soundtrack. Voices are very well mixed if perhaps a bit too far forward at times and there's some wide stereo separation that's evident from the first moments of the Overture. Fidelity is excellent and dynamic range is fairly wide.
Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The same supplemental features that were on previous home video releases have been ported over to this release:
Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Jesus Christ Superstar doesn't really work as a film, but it's still a fascinating relic of a time when suddenly Jesus was "cool" (as is stated in Rice's libretto) to a new generation. The film looks more dated than ever now to modern (and cynical) eyes, but it is still graced by some amazing performances and of course features the iconic Lloyd Webber music. Rice's provocative idea of seeing the Passion through Judas' eyes may still strike some as heresy, but it makes for riveting musical theater. This Blu-ray features very good looking video and excellent audio. Warts and all, Jesus Christ Superstar comes Recommended.
Jesus Christ Superstar Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Three Universal Catalog Titles in May - February 22, 2013
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced the Blu-ray release of three catalog titles this May: Babe: Pig in the City, Jesus Christ Superstar and In the Name of the Father. Each title is available for pre-order and streets on May 7th.
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