Plot: Jesus (Ted Neeley) has built up quite a following, much to his own surprise and the delight of his apostles. But Judas (Carl Anderson) worries that as the movement gains momentum, the group will make too noise and be noticed, drawing the attention of the ever dangerous Romans. Jesus and Judas clash often over such concerns, which prompts Judas to suspect that for Jesus’ own good, perhaps he should look into delivering a wake up call. This leads Judas to visit Caiaphas, who offers him silver pieces if he will confirm Jesus’ blasphemous claims and turn over his location. But when Jesus is arrested and taken in front of Pilate, Caiaphas stokes the mob mentality and calls for Jesus to be crucified, which was not the arrangement. Pilate is confused by the situation, as Jesus seems to have committed no crime, yet the crowd screams for his blood, so he finds himself in quite a unique situation.
Entertainment Value: A musical based on the final days of Jesus Christ is a wild premise, but Jesus Christ Superstar has been a cultural phenomenon. The show has become a classic and a regular production around the world, not to mention film and television adaptations. Norman Jewison’s take on the material moves it off the stage and into some incredible real world locations, so it instantly feels more epic and immersive than other incarnations. I’ve always found this to be the definitive spin on the material, in terms of both overall production and the soundtrack, as it is such a rich experience that commands attention. The movie met with some controversies of course, but those seem antiquated now and claims of racism seem ridiculous, given how incredibly diverse this cast is. I’ve also heard people complain about the more surreal touches, such as the modern elements that sometime come in or the bizarre Herod sequence, but to me, it fits in with the film’s psychedelic texture. The movie almost has a sci/fi feel at times thanks to those surreal elements and some wild production design choices, so this is not the typical Jesus picture.
As I said before, Jesus Christ Superstar has a very diverse cast and boasts some simply breathtaking performances. Ted Neeley might be small in stature, but he has a voice that shakes the foundations and he puts it to great use here. His scene in Gethsemane is beyond excellent and even though I have seen it countless times, those staggering high notes still give me goosebumps. He is able to convey the humanity of Christ, an element of his performance that really resonates. That balance of strength and vulnerability is remarkable, so Neeley is truly impressive in the role. Carl Anderson stars as Judas and brings the heat as well, with a powerful effort that makes me surprised he could even talk after how much raw energy went into his songs. Anderson breaks Judas out of the one dimensional space the character is often relegated to, giving us a fleshed out, humanist take. Yvonne Elliman is fantastic as Mary Magdalene, Larry Marshall shines as Simon, and Barry Dennen is terrific is Pilate, while Josh Mostel steals the show with his inventive portrayal of Herod. The cast is remarkable from top to bottom, with even the smallest roles able to shine. I would rank Jesus Christ Superstar as not just one of my favorite musicals, but one of my favorite movies period.