• 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


    Thursday, April 23, 2020

    Jesus Christ Superstar Live (2018)

    This year marks half a century since Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concept album was released and, if anything, it’s popularity is accelerating. The 1973 remains the only proper film version, but this century has seen at least three high profile recordings. The first in 2000 featured a pouting (blond) Glenn Carter mocked by a sneering Rik Mayall and condemned by a Pontius Pilate clad in a Nazi-esque uniform. Then in 2012, following ITV’s talent contest Superstar a stadium tour ensued featuring winner Ben Forster in the lead role with comedian Tim Minchin as Judas and former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm as Mary Magdalene. A DVD was released before the year was out.

    Six years later NBC announced their intention to broadcast Jesus Christ Superstar Live on Easter Sunday 2018 starring singer John Legend as Jesus and rockstar Alice Cooper as Herod. Legend would go on to earn a Primetime Emmy nomination for his performance. The production was performed in front of 1500 people in the venue and 9.4 million viewers at home (Wikipedia).

    The venue for all this, in the heart of Brooklyn, looks spectacular. The purpose built stage is huge, and the production makes the most of it with light and pyrotechnics bringing life to a sparse, grunge-tinged set. Several tiers of scaffolding host the orchestra and various members of the cast from moment to moment. However, the simplicity of the set allows its use in certain instances to really stand out. Parts of it look like dilapidated wall paintings. We’re unable to work out except a vague sense of religious heritage now faded and overlain with grime. During the overture a dancer spray guns on the word “Jesus” on one of the walls in red paint. The graffiti is sprayed over later in the production as the crowd begins to turn on their would-be messiah. Most strikingly the final shot before the role call sees the walls part to leave a cross-shaped space through which the still crucified Jesus is withdrawn gradually disappearing from view and being replaced by a bright light which only intensifies as the gap narrows again. It’s a wonderful metaphor for new life and hope coming from death. If only there was a Christian word for that…

    Dress is modern and urban, though the priests, Pilate and Herod appear in more unusual costumes. Previous modernisations feel like they have tried too hard to make a statement. Here they are pitched just right to be modern, but retain a nod to the historical nature of the story. Jesus is in skinny white jeans and a longline grey cardigan. Cooper’s Herod is clad in a sparkly gold suit, Pilate in maroon leather trousers and matching dress coat. The priests wear black throughout, though at one point they have hoods pulled far over their faces.

    All of which brings me to one of my misgivings about the production and Jesus Christ Superstar in general, the recycling of antisemtic tropes. Some of this is inherent in the music itself. The song where the crowd pressures Pilate into crucifying Jesus is impressive musically but also troublingly powerful. Set on a huge stage, with a vast crowd of extras all crying to crucify Jesus it only reinforces the perspective that the Jews were to blame for Jesus’ death. Having four Jewish priests plotting on a darkened stage with their black hoods pulled over their faces reinforces the “Jewish conspiracy” stereotype. Some versions of the opera omit “Pilate’s Dream” which puts Pilate’s wife’s dream about Jesus (Matt 27:19) on her husband’s lips casting him as fearful from the start, ripe to be bullied by a Jewish mob. Creative directors love to put a new spin on hit shows - indeed this production is a testimony to that impulse. It would be nice to see just one version of the opera return this song to his wife and give PIlate a more menacing presence from the off. From a Jesus films geek point of view it’s curious to see Ban Daniels, who played the most sympathetic Caiphas to date, in the BBC’s ultra-aware The Passion (2008), playing Pilate here instead. And it’s good that this version continues the show’s tradition of colour-blind casting, with John Legend joining the growing list of people of colour to have played Jesus.

    Legend’s casting is interesting for other reasons too. The original cast were all largely unknown and while the film turned Ted Neeley into a star, subsequent productions went back to using unknown actors. However, the 2012 version was an interesting transition in this respect. The show took a group of unknown hopeful performers and in the tradition of all reality TV competitions gradually the winner emerged a star. By the time the production was touring stadiums, Forster was better known than almost all of the rest of the cast. This time around Legend is a bona fide star in his own right, already with ten Grammies to his name.

    The star power Legend brings to the role blurs the line between him and a role which is about fame (and its transitory nature). During “Hosanna” Legend is not just celebrated by the cast, but he breaks the third wall and moves along the length of the audience giving high-fives and grasping outstretched hands as Jesus drinks in the adulation. Legend is, of course, acting, but those audience members interacting with him, are they playing along out of their love for Legend, for Jesus, or just their love of the show and the drama of the moment? Perhaps all three.

    I also wonder about the different ways Legend’s existing fans will interpret the show compared to prior fans of the show. Superstar is essentially a revisionist piece because Judas is a more sympathetic character than Jesus. Legend’s performance echoes this. He oozes charisma, but at times his Jesus seems a little too pleased with himself. I can’t help but wonder though if those tuning in as fans of Legend, but who are unfamiliar with the musical, will interpret it in the same way as I do. Christians who are unfamiliar with it often dislike the performance not realising that what they are reacting to is more about the role itself than this particular performance.

    Inevitably with situations like this - where one work is still very much cherished and where both versions (perhaps due to the source material, the opera), stick very closely to the original - you end up comparing casts. Legend sings some of the songs better, more sweetly perhaps, than Ted Neeley, but can’t match him on the high notes in Gethsemane. I’d never noticed it before, but without Neeley’s amazing vocal work the song kind of drags. Legend only had one shot at it of course. Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas gives a sold performance. He doesn’t quite have Carl Anderson’s charisma, but that actually suits the role, and Anderson can’t moonwalk, at least not to the best of my knowledge. Sarah Bareilles’ turn as Mary Magdalene probably bears the best comparison with the original - no mean feat given Yvonne Elliman’s in the 1973 film. Interestingly her saffron costume is more or less the only one that would not appear out of place in the 1970s as if soothing potential love interests are the one constant over the past 50 years.

    But of course the other challenge these actors have, which those in the original did not, is trying to give performances that work both on stage and on screen. I must admit that I’ve not experienced a live stage show on screen like this before, so apologies if this is a tired observation. Nevertheless, Alice Cooper excepted, the cast do a good job with these challenges, generally producing performances which work to 1500 people in the audience, as well as for the up close cameras. Visually this is made more interesting as well by the presence of several roving musicians who appear almost as part of the cast at various moments.

    It’s good to see that even at fifty, Jesus Christ Superstar is still capable of bringing something new. It speaks volumes about Rice and Webber’s original work that it has transitioned so effortless this far into the twenty-first century. As much as I love the original film, it’s so caught in the 1970s that it’s a hard sell to modern audiences and neither it, or subsequent other filmed versions capture the thrill of catching the show in a theatre. That this version manages to achieve that is hugely impressive. In part that is due to this version’s sheer energy. Superstar has always had dancing, but directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski do a great job of getting it to convey that “buzz”. That and ambitious lighting, use of the ample space the auditorium provides and the roving, circling camera work make for a truly impressive adaptation. I have a feeling that next time I sit down to watch Superstar with the kids, it will be this version we will be reaching for.



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