• Sun. Sep 24th, 2023

Cult Column: Jesus Christ Superstar

ByIsabella Santini

Apr 6, 2023
Still from Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

It’s nearly Easter again, and for me that’s synonymous with my yearly rewatch of Jesus Christ Superstar, specifically the 1973 film version directed by the criminally underrated Norman Jewison. Despite the title, this is not necessarily a Christian film, nor do you need to be Christian to enjoy it (I’m not, and it’s one of my favourite films of all time). Indeed, Jesus Christ Superstar is not really about Jesus. Rather, it’s about the Bible and the way we interpret and interact with it; it’s about what Jesus and his story mean to us as a culture and the questions we have that can never be truly answered; it’s about fate, about revisiting the same story again and again, knowing you can’t change the outcome and wondering if you want to. No other production in the musical’s 50+ year history has understood these themes like Jewison’s film.

Filmed on location in the ancient ruins of Palestine and featuring hippie costumes to die for, Jesus Christ Superstar is a visual treat with great music and even better vocals. What really elevates it, however, is the choice to add a framing device. The overture begins with a minibus driving through the dusty desert. When it stops, actors pile out and begin to get into costume – we are watching these people put on a Passion Play. Instead of being a straight retelling of Jesus’ final days, the film becomes a story within a story, and this has intense ramifications. Suddenly, every character knows their own fate and the role they will be forced to play in this story. Still, there’s nothing they can do; the lines have already been written. This lends tragedy to every character, but none more so than Judas and Pontius Pilate, who have been cast as the villains of the story. 

Pilate is nearly in tears as he pleads with Jesus, asking how he can save him. When he washes his hands of the situation and condemns Jesus to death, he is on one level taking the easy way out, but on another level, he’s taking the only way out. Jesus needs to die, so Pilate needs to condemn him. What can he do but let things take their course? As Jesus warns, “everything is fixed, and you can’t change it.” This applies even more to Judas, who, alongside Mary Magdalene, loves Jesus deeply. This love is borne out through heart-wrenchingly tender touches and looks. At one point, the two are literally pulled apart as they grasp one another’s hands, but it is the narrative that physically separates them rather than any individual. When Judas goes to the Sanhedrin, he is chased there by tanks, partially symbolising his fear of Roman retaliation, but also literalising the line “I really didn’t come here of my own accord”. The story demands, almost violently, that he must do this.

Most heart-breaking of all is Judas’ suicide. He sits alone, grieving over Jesus’ imminent death when – suddenly – the music comes in. He looks up as if he has heard it, as if this is his cue, and begins to run (or be dragged) towards the tree, screaming that he has been “used”. He has not killed himself so much as he has been “murdered” by God and the narrative. Jesus’ sacrifice is his death, but Jesus Christ Superstar suggests that Judas has perhaps sacrificed just as much in becoming the villain of a tale that demanded one, the perpetrator of God’s “own bloody crime”. 

This framing device does more than add a layer of tragedy, however. It also reckons with the Bible as a text. The political situation of occupied Judea is at the forefront of the film, with characters arguing about optics, respectability, and resistance. As such, each character has their own political motivations. Simon urges Jesus to “keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome”, whereas other disciples like Peter are presented as somewhat clueless and flaky, and not one of them is willing to stay awake with Jesus on the eve of his arrest. With all this in mind, the line sung at the Last Supper – “then when we retire, we can write the gospels / so they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died” – is a striking one. It calls into question everything we’re seeing on-screen because it is those very gospels that we are watching a performance of. Written as they are by these biased men, we can’t be sure that any of these events are what really happened. Nor can we be sure of this portrayal of Jesus, even as we watch him launch into a soliloquy expressing his doubts to God.

At every step, the film engages with the Bible’s cultural legacy. The Last Supper involves a brief tableau reminiscent of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, while Jesus’ resolution to do as God wishes and die is immediately followed by a sequence of famous crucifixion paintings as he embraces his own mythology. My favourite example also comes during the Last Supper, when Jesus and Judas have their final confrontation. In the midst of this, they assign each other’s ultimate legacies: “You liar! You Judas!” screams Jesus, in one utterance, forever consigning Judas to the role of traitor, while Judas counters with, “Christ! You deserve it!” using Jesus’ name as an interjection. 

Jesus Christ Superstar is the attempt of a group of performers in the Palestinian desert to “strip away the myth from the man”, the superstar’s legend, but in the end, they are left with the same questions: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ / Who are you? What have you sacrificed?” As they step back onto the bus, each actor pauses and looks back, still wondering about what happened there and their own place in it. Jesus, notably, is missing from this final scene. The film ends there – there is no resurrection; we know no more about Jesus than when we started, but we have nevertheless felt something in the act of questioning.

Image: “1973 JESUCRISTO SUPERSTAR . Jesus Christ Superstar. Norman Jewison” by Ricardo Pablo is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0