The most notable Jewish movie musical, of course, is 1971’s Fiddler on the Roof. The most notable Christian movie musical is the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, which followed two years later. That both films had the same director, Norman Jewison, might say something about traditional Judeo-Christian solidarity, although Jesus Christ Superstar, in its various incarnations, has been accused of antisemitism.
(Unlike Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, those charges were never fair- and unlike Gibson, Jewison never had a subsequent drunken antisemitic meltdown. And Jewison, who despite his name is a gentile, is nevertheless a lifelong Philo-Semite- between the surname and Fiddler, how could he not be?)
Arriving in August of 1973 — 50 years ago this month — the movie of Jesus Christ Superstar presented an of-its-time, hippie-inspired, rock-oriented version of both Christianity and the musical theater tradition. Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, JCS became life as a conceptual album, before it made its Broadway debut in 1971, just two years before the movie. It was Webber’s first of many hit musicals, even as a large subset of musical theater enthusiasts vocally disliked his work, favoring the more cerebral musicals of Stephen Sondheim.
Filmed in Israel, unlike most biblical films, Jesus Christ Superstar is set almost entirely outdoors. The movie version begins with the cast arriving on the set in a modern-day bus while wearing hippie clothes, which sets the tone for what’s to follow:
And that’s far from where the anachronisms end. At one point, Jesus trashes the costume room. Extras and participants in musical numbers are wearing clothes much more associated with 1973 than with 33 A.D.
Most depictions of this story haven’t depicted King Herod as shirtless, or wearing tinted glasses…
The film mostly focuses on the rivalry between Jesus (Ted Neeley) and Judas (Carl Anderson); Lin-Manuel Miranda has said that he based the central conflict in Hamilton between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr on the Jesus/Judas dynamic in Jesus Christ Superstar.
In truth, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the weirdest of musicals, and movie musicals, with a wildly different audience from the sort of “faith-based” films that have gained purchase more recently.
There is, for some reason, a subculture of Jewish people who love Jesus Christ Superstar; the third season of Transparent had the Jewish family singing along to the soundtrack while traveling through Israel. It’s also appreciated by a lot of people who, otherwise, aren’t huge fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
At any rate, it is unquestionably the best movie ever made from a Webber show, although the competition (the adaptations of Evita, the Phantom of the Opera, and course, Cats) isn’t exactly robust. When Alan Parker, who directed the 1996 Evita movie with Madonna, died in 2020, Webber described him as “one of the few directors to truly understand musicals on screen,” which was interpreted by many as a shot at the disastrous Cats movie, which had come out about six months earlier.)
I always thought Webber’s other biblical show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, was a natural to be adapted, possibly as an animated musical, but that’s never happened.
There was never another major movie of Jesus Christ Superstar, although, on Easter in 2018, John Legend starred in a stage/concert version that was shown live on NBC, called Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert.
The 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar is available to stream on all major VOD platforms.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.