The film version of the post-hippy reinterpretation of the Passion of the Christ tries hard but is ultimately hamstrung by the terrible, terrible songs.
“Lloyd-Webber’s awful stuff runs for years and years and years”
Roger Waters, It’s a Miracle
The knee-jerk reaction to Andrew Lloyd-Webber – that he is a puppet-faced Tory cheerleader responsible for the most depressingly awful populist musical atrocities of the last 40 years, almost single-handedly making the West End musical into the ghastly thing that is is today – has more than a touch of truth to it, but I tried to approach Jesus Christ Superstar with an open mind nevertheless. After all, this rock opera retelling of the final days of Christ had a certain potential – an early 1970s collision of prog rock and glam rock, a high camp Biblical epic and a potentially entertainingly ludicrous hippy musical extravaganza. God knows, we love a bit of religious kitsch and trashy excess. And with director Norman Jewison – a man who has made more impressive movies than you might think – at the helm, there was no reason to believe that the film would not be as impressive a production as it could be. But ultimately, that is the problem here – there’s only so much that anyone could do with this material, short of completely reworking it – an option that I imagine was not open to the director – and so the results are a plodding slice of God-bothering that doesn’t even have the guts to go all out in its Christian ideals. Woolly liberal Christianity is never as entertaining as its fire and brimstone alternative.
certainly, the film looks impressive, with its boycott-baiting Israeli locations having an authentic feel, a collection of spectacular (and yes, deliciously kitsch) costumes and the sometimes delirious collision of the modern and the ancient, explained away by the opening scenes where a busload of hippies – Jesus Freaks as they were known in the 1970s, perhaps recognising the uncomfortable relationship between Christianity and any other cult – arrive in the desert to re-enact the Passion of the Christ – a justification for the inclusion of hippy fashions, tanks and machine guns amongst the New Testament story that feels a little like a cop-out – it would’ve been better to just have the mix of the ancient and the modern as an unexplained touch of Seventies strangeness, adding a layer of the psychedelic and the timeless to the Biblical story, which was already done to death by this point.
Inevitably, whatever pleasures might be had from this odd collision of ancient and ‘modern’ (with the modern now looking every bit as weird and alien as the authentic Biblical imagery) are unable to compensate for the bloody awful music that propels the story. You might know a few tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar, but those numbers (or, most significantly, the small parts of them that are familiar) are the exception – for much of the film, we get half-baked semi-songs, admittedly very much in the style of ‘proper’ opera, where what would in any other circumstance be regular dialogue is pointlessly and tunelessly sung. There are some decent set pieces, mostly courtesy of Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot, but for the most part, this is plodding, caterwauling rubbish that anyone with a modicum of musical taste will find almost unbearable.
If you are an easily shocked Christian, you might find the suggestions that Jesus (a rather bland Ted Neeley replacing more interesting stage performers like Ian Gillan) was more man than Messiah to be a bit outrageous – though the film changes lyrics to remove the more potentially blasphemous moments, including hints that his relationship with Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) might have been less than chaste. There are still a couple of lingering looks that suggest this, but they remain open to interpretation, giving the filmmakers a get-out clause for claims of blasphemy that might have caused the film censorship issues in Britain at least (though as we know, the BBFC was very selective over which films they decided were blasphemous and which they didn’t). But this is pretty tame, unprovocative stuff for the most part, never likely to frighten the horses or offer a radical reinterpretation of the official line.
Jewison’s film does its best with the available material, but there is little to work with quite frankly. What enthrals tourists and easily-pleased simpletons in West End theatres is never really going to wash on the cinema screen, and this is plodding, tuneless, uninspired and irritatingly bland stuff for the most part, dosed with a sense of smugness in its own importance and pretty much of a crucifixion-level ordeal for the most part.
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