• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Sunday, April 01, 2018

    Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) Revisited

    I thought as it was Easter Sunday (at least in the Western Churches) that I should post about a Jesus film and as earlier in the day my family sat down to watch Jesus Christ, Superstar (1973) I thought this would be a good place to start since it's been a long time since I wrote anything about that film at all.

    One of the thing that I've mentioned before but never on the blog is that what is unique about the piece is that the film's numerous solos give us an account of things from the perspective of each of the major characters in turn. The solos let us inside their heads, including Judas (various starting with "Heaven on their Minds"), Mary ("I Don't Know How to Love Him"), Jesus ("Gethsemane"), Pilate ("Pilate's Dream"). Herod ("King Herod's Song"), the Priests ("Then We Are Decided") and even Simon the Zeaot ("Simon Zealotes"). These songs function as internal monologue, something that is typically absent from biblical films. Even when it is present, such as in Last Temptation of Christ (1988) it is only from one character's perspective, rather than seven or eight.

    But enough of previous observations, what about this viewing? One thing that really stood out to me this time was the extent to which the film seeks to be more inclusive. Whilst Jesus and a number of the other lead part are played by white men (Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate), Judas is African Carribean, Simon the Zealot is mixed race and Mary Magdalene is Asian American. This diversity is all the more apparent when looking at the broader range of actors including the chorus. The number of non-white face is far more extensive and women are prominent amongst Jesus' followers, as well as in other roles ((although not his disciples, nor amongst the priests). There are even a few shots of two men with their arms around one-another, suggesting the film is also positive about same-sex couples.

    In this respect the film goes far further than the play. In Lloyd-Webber and Rice's original rock opera Mary is the only principle female part. Indeed even though the dream that Pilate's wife has in Matt 27:19 is covered and indeed developed into a song in its own right, it is transferred to being the dream of her husband, the two characters are conflated into one, and Claudia is left out of the script. Here though, just as Pilate's song comes to an end a woman comes to him and the two act if they are equals, and seemingly, then, husband and wife. Later, the same woman appears in two shots accompanied by two other women, but both times the shot cuts to Pilate next and there is something disapproving in the way they are looking at him. It's a small nod towards recognising the character's role, but there nevertheless.

    One of the things that is famous about the film is the way it blends modern and ancient imagery: whilst the Jesus story is "set" in first century Judea, the film takes place in modern Israel; costumes are deliberately anachronistic; the presence of tanks, aeroplanes, and many of the items on display in the clearing of the temple scene are from the twentieth century not the first; and the language does not even attempt authenticity. Another aspect of this is the al fresco Last Supper scene which actually introduces a third era into the mix by copying the composition of Leonardo's famous fresco, both in wide shot and in this close up shot where the position of the disciples hands matches (more or less) the pose from Leonardo's famous mural.

    One thing I particularly appreciated this time around is the complexity of some of the shots, including a long shot of Caiaphas and Annas during "Then We Are Decided" and the one through the hole in the cave at the start of "What's the Buzz?". One that is particularly impressive is the one that links "The Death of Judas" and the trial before Caesar. It starts on Judas' still dangling body at the top of a mountain and pans out and down until moving in on Jesus' trial which is about to begin. It must have been an incredibly difficult shot to achieve, which raises the question why director Norman Jewison went to the effort. Presumably this is to underline how Judas' death will be for ever tied to the death of Jesus, and how Jesus' sacrificial death is dependent on Judas' betrayal. Here's the longest version of this shot I could save as a gif:

    That's all for now, but if you want to read / hear more about my thoughts on this film you can read my other posts I've made on it here, in particular the scene guide, or you can download my podcast on it here:



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