Sunday, March 31, 2013


Jesus was having quite a cultural moment in the early 70s. The term "Jesus freak" (referring to the young folks who were embracing a counter-cultural image of Christ) was in vogue, the Campus Crusade for Christ was a growing organization, a book about the Rapture was on the bestseller lists, and the pop charts were home to some explicitly Christian songs like "Put Your Hand in the Hand" and new versions of "The Lord's Prayer" and "Amazing Grace." JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and GODSPELL were two hit musicals which also also gave birth to hit pop songs--"Superstar" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from the first, "Day By Day" from the second, and were both made into movies, neither one completely successfully.

I have fond feelings for both works because I came upon them in my high school and college years. As a teenager, I was already a lapsed Catholic (though I was still expected to attend church every Sunday until the middle of my college years) but I had a girlfriend who was a born-again Christian, and I was interested in the ins and outs of theology, so both works appealed to me. I saw the staged versions of both shows and became a fan of both, but was disappointed in the films. The movie of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, which is a sung-through "rock opera," was set in the Holy Land, with a troupe of actors arriving out in the middle of nowhere to get into costume, put up sets, and act out the story of the Passion. The show, the first collaboration of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, was groundbreaking not just because of the rock music, but because Judas is sort of the leading man, a figure presented as complicated, conflicted, and, so I think, more interesting that Jesus. The movie retains the wonderful score, and the leads, Ted Neely as Jesus (pictured) and Carl Anderson as Judas, were charismatic enough. But the rest of the cast, especially the Romans, aren't up to the task of acting like actors who are lost in roles (I think that's what they're supposed to be), and the singing, despite the presence of a couple of people from the original album, is not up to snuff, with the force of the dramatic songs feeling weakened. Even the big "Superstar" number, which should have been a highlight, is bungled by the director, Norman Jewison, who in my eyes also bungled the screen version of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

GODSPELL was a smaller-scale, Jesus-as-hippie show, the gospel of Matthew presented as a series of gentle soft-rock songs and blackout sketches, mostly joyous until the inevitable downer of Jesus' death. I saw the show live several times and the Jesus-freak sincerity, catchy melodies, and transcendent ending always moved me without quite converting me. The movie is set in New York City with a handful of folks frustrated with the hectic pace of their day hearing the call of a scruffy John the Baptist's shofar and "dropping out," following John and Jesus (in a Superman t-shirt and rainbow pants) to a variety of locations in the suddenly deserted city (including the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park and the still-under-construction World Trade Center). They act out a variety of parables and sing about grace and salvation, without any real narrative until the Last Supper and Crucifixion (up against a fence with red ribbons tied to Jesus' wrists to symbolize blood, I imagine). At dawn, they carry his body through the still-deserted city, turn a corner, and suddenly vanish as the city is just as suddenly repopulated.

That ending is a very nice effect, and one of the few moments that really works in the movie. Victor Garber, as Jesus, is very good, and one of the few cast members who went on to have a strong acting career (also Lynne Thigpen, perhaps best known as the Chief on the Carmen Sandiego TV shows, and David Haskell as John and Judas, who did quite a bit of television). The rest of the cast is fine, but the fact that everything, the songs and the dialogue, was post-synced hurts a bit, and frankly, a lot of potential for either cute or profound touches was wasted--the settings and direction both feel a bit slapdash. Both of these movies were trying to adapt to film what were originally very theatrical experiences, and neither film finds the right balance between artifice and realism. Both are easy to sit through, especially at Easter, but the original albums still being the works home to me more strongly. [DVDs]

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