Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Jesus Christ Superstar: Do you think you're who they say you are?

I watched Jesus Christ Superstar the other night, and I have to tell you--despite my adamant avoidance of organized religion--it actually made me want to pick up a Bible and read some of it. (Unfortunately, it turns out neither The Boyfriend nor I own one, so I had to let that desire pass.)

As a movie, it's cinematically interesting, though very obviously 70s. The idea of "framing" the production with the travelling theater troupe instead of trying to go for period realism was very smart and makes it easier to accept the costuming and set choices and enjoy the music and acting. (After all, if you spend the whole movie wondering to yourself why Judas is wearing bedazzled, fringed bellbottoms, you are probably going to miss out on the real point of the thing.) Also, I think the very minimalist set design simplifies a production that--being a rock opera with no breaks and no real "dialogue"--could quickly become overwhelming.

The performances from all the actors were great. Not only could they all rock out, but there was real ACTING going on. Ted Neely as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas were particularly excellent. It is not easy to do "projecting emotion" and "shrieking melodically in falsetto" at the same time, and the two of them pull it off.

My favorite thing about this movie has got to be the music. With a collaboration between such musical giants as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, you can probably put pretty good odds on getting something amazing, but for a project as large and complicated as this, I have to tip my hat to them. As I said before, there is NO real dialogue. Everyone sings, and one song fades into another, only to circle around and return at the opportune moment. The music, once again, is very 70s, but it's still quite powerful. This is music that I intend to purchase for my iPod.

The other thing I liked was how much the movie made me think about Jesus--not Jesus the religious figure, but Jesus the guy. I mean, how totally stressful must it be to be Jesus? Everybody wants something from you--the Jewish leaders/Pharisees want you to shut up, the people want you to be louder, your apostles and followers want leadership and guidance and information, everybody wants to be healed or fixed or prayed for--"Heal me! Raise my dead child! Feed me!", and then you've got God who is telling you you have to die for these people. Neely plays Jesus as someone who desperately wants to be everything to everyone, but he's in over his head and knows that things will not end well for him. He's the first cinematic Jesus I've seen with a temper--he's not just a meek sweetheart, the scene where he throws the moneychangers out of the temple is Jesus-in-full-on-rage-mode. He's not afraid, precisely, but he seems to kind of wish he had other options.

The other interesting thing about this movie is the way Judas is presented. Growing up in the protestant church, we didn't get into Judas much. Mostly "Judas betrayed Jesus for 3o pieces of silver." Nothing much was said about who he was or why he did what he did. Basically, he was always depicted as a shady, shitty guy who turned Jesus in for money. In Jesus Christ; Superstar, Judas starts as Jesus's best friend and closest ally. However, Judas is worried about the "Jesus Movement" and afraid that Jesus is going to get them all killed by the Romans for riling up the political waters with his teachings, instead of just helping the downtrodden, which is what they started out doing. Their differences are more political than anything else--Jesus is the rising outsider superstar with the grassroots support, and Judas is afraid the established order (the Romans and the Pharisees) is going to retaliate unless Jesus cools it. But Jesus of course does not really give a shit one way or another about the established order, because after all, he's on another path completely. Judas ends up turning in Jesus--in his mind--to save him from falling victim to his own hype, not realizing he was playing into the Pharisees' hands, nor understand how quickly the mob could turn from adoration to violence.

One of the best parts in the movie is Judas's slowly dawning understanding of what he's done--and the fact that Jesus knew all along and let him do it anyway. Jesus knew very well how everything would turn out--that Juda's actions would lead to the cross, of how the guilt of what he'd done would eat away at Judas--but he just let it play out as he knew it must. Judas's realization of how he's been used and what his future holds is heartwrenching.

Rock operas are clearly not for everyone, and there are one or two songs that go on a bit too long or have a bit too much shrieking, but on the whole it's an interesting movie, particularly for those who are maybe a little jaded on religion. I recommend it.