50 years ago, Norman Jewison was already a respected director in Hollywood, with great successes like The Thomas Crown Affair and the musical Fiddler on the Roof when he decided to film Jesus Christ Superstar. As many biographers like to point out, in the director’s vast and rich filmography, the theme of betrayal has always been an important element, and with that, telling an archetypal story of betrayal in Western culture was irresistible.
Still, going from a Broadway smash to major controversy was a brave decision. In 1971, Fiddler on the Roof was one of the biggest box office hits of the year and the winner of the Oscar for Best Picture, so repeating the genre (another musical) was a big risk of comparison. But Norman managed to outdo himself and delivered us the first filmed rock opera and scored yet another Best Picture nomination in 1973 (lost to The Godfather).
As I mentioned in 2020 in my CLAUDIA column (reposted here in Miscelana in 2021), the musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice first appeared as a concept album in 1970 before rocking the stages the following year. The two were inspired to approach the story of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, following a song by Bob Dylan, With God on Our Side, which had a strong phrase, questioning how we analyze the story: “Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss, but I cannot think for you, You have to decide whether Judas Iscariot was with God on his side or not”
While Fiddler is a film about Jewish culture, Jesus Christ Superstar managed to displease all religions at the same time and Norman was not intimidated. Even more, he decided to take the work out of the studio and theater, taking the action to Israel and the places where it took place. A headache, but the winner was the cinema. Filming covered more than 20 locations, with bases in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Beersheba, and Nazareth, focusing more on the ruins of Herod’s palace, the Herodium, but also passing through the West Bank, occupied by Israel.
Another innovation by the director, modernizing musicals, was to bring metalanguage to the narrative: the film follows a troupe of hippie artists re-enacting the last days of the life of Jesus, in an underground and rock atmosphere, for which he preferred to cast unknowns for the lead roles, drawn from another groundbreaking musical, Hair, as Ted Neeley, and singer Carl Anderson. Both choices were controversial.
Ted, who plays Jesus, was a rocker from Texas, he was short and very different from the usual image of Christ and Norman chose him without even hearing him sing. What the director saw in him was the essential vulnerability for the role and discarded a list of famous stars, which ranged from Mick Jagger (Rolling Stones), John Lennon or Paul McCartney (Beatles), Barry Gibb (Bee Gees), Ian Gillan ( lead singer of Deep Purple and Jesus from the original concept album) to Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin).
But the most shocking choice was Carl Anderson‘s precisely to play Judas who is the leader of the story. Norman resisted pressure and criticism from a black actor in the role, claiming that “discrimination is evil” and that Carl fared better than the others who tested for Judas. “The audition was so successful that there really was no doubt in my mind that he was the most talented actor to play the role,” he said at the time. And having a Japanese-Irish unknown as Mary Magdalene, even though she sang on the original album, was also criticized, but he kept Yvonne Elliman. That is, half a century later we see an inclusive and current cast, but at the time, it caused strangeness.
The musical was born from the song written by Tim and Andrew, Superstar, in which some perceptive questions – in the voice of Judas – question motivations and facts of the story of Jesus and already pointed to the criticism of the celebrity culture, highlighted in the film when Norman places Mary Madalena as a type of groupie. Another innovative decision for the time was to keep the film sung the entire time, with no dialogue added to “help”. If that wasn’t enough, he demanded that artists sing live and not rely on dubbing. We still hear the alternate and emotional snippets of them going all out today and it’s incredible.
The recording angles presented in Jesus Christ Superstar are so innovative that more than 10 years later they influenced the clips that would become essential tools for artists from the 1980s onwards, with the emergence of MTV. In particular, the scene of the song Gethsemane was shot on the cliffs of the Siluad Wadi, an area inaccessible to cars and which required that all equipment be carried by donkeys. In it, the camera revolves around Jesus Christ crying on top of the mountain, a very common image in music videos even today.
The cast recalled the entire recording process with great emotion, even without being necessarily religious. Knowing that they were in the place where it all happened created a special connection for them, which is seen in the final film. Knowing that the work was considered blasphemous and uncomfortable, Norman opted for a mysterious ending.
In the final scene, when the cast finishes recording and boards the bus again to leave, they are sad (when they arrive they are excited) with Carl Anderson being the last to board (he had been the first to get off), but Ted Neeley is no longer with them. Also, after two hours of non-stop music, Jesus Christ Superstar ends the image of an empty cross at sunset and the credits roll in silence. For many, it is a suggestion of a spiritual touch to the work, but what we all can confirm is that 50 years later it remains brilliant.