In 1971, long before I came to know Jesus Christ personally, a stage play was performed in London. Sadly, I can't go back and see that performance. I can only imagine how powerful it must've been. And although there have been revivals of the stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar, I find the 1973 film more in tune with my remembrance of the original soundtrack - sitting in front of Mom's Magnavox console, listening to that original London cast singing...over and over again.
The play - and the film - open with Overture, a rather haunting introduction that underscores the time period in which they were both made. In the 1973 film we see the cast arriving on location - I believe - at the ruins of Avdat, an ancient city in the Negev. They disembark and begin unloading the bus, with the cross of the crucifixion carried on top and featured prominently. Judas, played superbly by Carl Anderson, walks away by himself, then turns to watch the appearance of Jesus - as if by magic - from the middle of the rest of the actors.
Judas opens the vocal performances with Too Much Heaven on Their Minds, an interesting plea to Jesus which infers that Judas was concerned that what started out as a good thing - walking around performing a few miracles and teaching some good life principles - was starting to spin out of control. People were beginning to refer to Jesus as the promised Messiah and that was dangerous under the Roman occupation. Jesus' followers needed to get their heads out of the clouds, away from Heaven and back to Earth, where real things were happening that were much more important.
Apparently they didn't take Judas' warnings to heart because in the next scenes, scored with What's the Buzz and Strange Things Mystifying, the disciples pepper Jesus with questions about the future while Mary works to provide some calmness for her Lord. This scene also includes a reference to Mary's use of a very expensive container of oil (or perfumed oil) for which Judas chastises Jesus, saying that it would've been better to sell it and give the money to the poor. The biblical accounts - in Matthew, Mark and John - note that far from being a waste, the oil was being used to prepare Jesus for burial.
There are a great number of inaccuracies from a biblical perspective in the film, so I wouldn't use the film as a basis for a theological treatise. However, Ted Neeley's portrayal of Jesus has a quality that one can't help but think is accurate to some degree as he mourns the lack of understanding - even among his own disciples - regarding Jesus' true purpose.
Still, with all the misleading, misinterpreted and flat out incorrect biblical information, Jesus Christ Superstar has a power about it that I think stems more from the actual life, death, and resurrection of Jesus than any man-made attempts to dramatize it. Our society is one that craves visual stimulus and the stark, spare costumes, scenery and props used in the film somehow fade into insignificance behind the powerful story being told.
Jesus Christ Superstar focuses on the events leading up to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus; told against a backdrop painted with the conflicted relationship between Judas and Jesus, as well as questions surrounding not only the background of Mary Magdalene, but the nature of her relationship with the Messiah. Most disappointingly, I found the portrayal of the Apostles - especially Simon the Zealot - to be overdone. All of this is subjective of course, since none of us were there and can't really know what happened in between the lines - the facts - that we read about in the Bible. Certainly I would've been confused by Jesus. Even today we find it difficult to conceive that He came to save us. Back in 1st century Israel, chafing against Roman occupation, there would've been a variety of opinions about who He was and what He was there for.
One of the things I think Jesus Christ Superstar portrays well is the sadness of Jesus. There are several references to Jesus crying in Scripture. He weeps for Jerusalem in Luke 19:41 - right in the middle of what we call the Triumphal Entry. Similarly, just before one His most powerful miracles - raising His friend Lazarus from the dead, John 11:35 states simply, "Jesus wept." I imagine that the biblical Jesus, fully God and fully man, with foreknowledge of His fate, couldn't help but be sad about a great many things. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane clearly indicates an internal pain regarding His own Earthly fate. However, I believe that the lion's share of Jesus' sadness came because of the Jew's reaction to Him as well as what He knew was to come...even today.
The moneychanger scene in the Temple also comes in chapter 19 of the Gospel of Luke. This is another scene I like to believe the film portrayed somewhat accurately. There are shots of Judas staring incredulously as Jesus turns over the tables and generally makes a wreck of the Temple courtyard, all the while rebuking the merchants - as well as the nearby Pharisees - that God's Temple should be a house of prayer, not a den of thieves.
Although the trial and crucifixion are dramatically much tamer than portrayed in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, there is still a power and poignancy to the scenes that tell the story. And as the cast shuffles off down the hill after Jesus' death, with Mr. Neeley still on the cross, the director leaves us to wonder about a few things.
We never see Neeley board the bus and in the closing scene, the single cross is spread against a blood-red sunset, with no body hanging limply from its members.
There are no real historical arguments against the life and death of Jesus. All of the argument centers around what came next. Did He rise? Is He in Heaven today, fulfilling the promise He made to the Apostles in John 14.
What do you think?