• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    Thoughts on the Jesus Christ, Superstar Director's Commentary

    Despite my obsessiveness about Jesus films, watching this a month ago was actually the first time I have sat down to watch a film with the commentary track turned on. It's something I've always meant to do, but there are so many films to see in so little time.

    It was also the first time that I have watched the film in widescreen, and, being on DVD obviously helped the quality. I must admit I was blown away by the cinematography this time around. There is still much in this film that has dated, and not in a good way, but at the same time there are some incredible images at times too. Until fairly recently, I was sceptical about the merits of DVDs over VHS, and there was even a time (long long ago) when I failed to see the benefits of widescreen. But, increasingly, I'm re-discovering films for the first time as there visual assets are given the opportunity to show what they're worth.

    Anyway, I thought I would post a few comments on some of what was said in the commentary which was given by both director Norman Jewison and Ted Neeley who played Jesus. It was quite touching hearing the two come back together to do this commentary. Both men clearly felt a huge amount of affection for each other, and towards the end Neeley offers Jewison a heartfelt thank you for casting in this film which has gone on to be one of the defining moments of his life. Neeley has been playing Jesus ever since, (including, we are told, 2000 performances on a five year tour from 1992-97) and even met his wife on set.

    The other emotional aspect of this commentary is that the actor who played Judas, Carl Anderson - who was a great friend to both men, had died a month before recording. This was, I believe, the first time the two men had met since Anderson's funeral, where Neeley had performed "Gethsemane". As I said above, I don't have a huge amount of experience with director's commentaries, but I imagine that few of them are as emotional as this one. Perhaps that is something that goes more with older films, particularly ones that have been as influential on those who took part as this one.

    Thankfully it wasn't all emotional however, and there are plenty of interesting revelations. The pair explain, for example, that both Anderson and Neeley were referencing Kazantzakis's "Last Temptation" during filming; how the set was all pretty much there when they got there other than the scaffolding used by the priests; and how the cast was split up into different camps to improve the cliquey-ness with Jesus's group and the animosity with Judas and the priests. This was enhanced by the sense of isolation the whole cast and crew felt being stuck in the middle of the Israeli desert; it fostered community.

    As with most director's commentaries there is plenty discussion about some of the shots that are used. One of the more important shots for interpreting the film, which is often overlooked, is the opening scenes of the actors getting off the bus. Jewison notes how he wanted to introduce each character in turn, and it struck me how this captures part of the experience of those attending a stage version of this opera. Usually they would buy a programme, which introduces each of the characters, and flick through it before the performance starts. Likewise the actors "take a bow" at the end of the film as they file back onto the bus.

    I particularly appreciated the explanation of the dissolve from the vultures, who just happened to be flying overhead one day, to the priests. Further fuel for those who accuse the film of anti-Semitism, but an effective extra way of highlighting who the bad guys are nevertheless. As for those charges, Jewison and Neeley are keen to point out that the cast and the (all-British) crew included Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddists.

    Elsewhere there's talk of how the Dead Sea used for "Herod's Song" forms a most around him; praise for the locations ("like westerns"); and admiration for the way Tony Gibbs intercut "Superstar" with scenes from the crucifixion.

    There's also quite a bit of discussion about the casting. Jewison apparently drove a considerable distance to see Neeley play "Ted" in Tommy, only to find when he got there that he'd been injured that afternoon. Carl Anderson was worried that casting him as a black Judas might hurt the film, but Jewison reassured him by telling him he was being cast because of his talent rather than his colour. Jewison also quotes his younger self at one point as defending casting a blue eyed actor by explaining "this is not accurate, it's an opera we have to go with the voices". This certainly wasn't a problem for the actor playing Pilate and Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene) both of whom had sung on the original album.

    Then of course there's the trivia. Here are some of the pieces I noted down:
    • The "Clearing the Temple" scene had to be limited to two takes because everything got smashed up.
    • The tanks used in the famous shot where they creep behind Judas (below to the sound of flutes), were the real thing, fresh from the 6 Days War.
    • The grass for the Last Supper had to be grown specially, four months in advance.
    • The rope they used to hang Judas broke in take 1.
    • The soldier who was crucifying Neeley didn't speak English and almost put the spike (nail) through his hand for real.
    • Mrs Neeley cried when shown the flogging scene.
    • Filming "Gethsemane" required 6 guys carrying equipment up the mountain.
    • The 120o heat was so intense that filming in some scene had to stop every 30 seconds.
    Finally, there is also some discussion about the controversy surrounding the film. Strangely it seems the BBC was more concerned than the Vatican. Whilst the BBC banned the album, presumably from it's radio stations primarily, the Vatican sent journalists to see the film who were so overwhelmed they even suggested Neeley should be canonised. The problem for the BBC was apparently not because of the ambiguity surrounding the events after Jesus's death, but because they couldn't handle a singing Jesus. Speaking of that shot, Jewison confesses that the shepherds appearance was all down to chance. In any case Neeley was neither rattled, nor particularly surprised by the controversy, not only describing it as "great" but also "inevitable" due to the film's personal nature. He is pleased, however, that many fans of the film have found it brought them to a more spiritual place.

    There's obviously much more besides this, and the DVD also comes with an interview with Sir Tim Rice which I covered back in August.

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