First a record, then a stage play, then a movie, now a filmed stage play again; Jesus Christ Superstar has gone through many variations and versions since 1970. Gale Edwards's take on Andrew Lloyd Webber's play is a much glitzier, more passionate modern attempt to tell the story of Christ, from the perspective of Judas Iscariot. Part Vegas show, part Broadway production, this is a filmed theatrical play and keeps its roots on the stage. The DVD presentation is very good, though not without its flaws. For many, this will be their best chance to see the play.

Normally I wouldn't have to talk about the story; the story of Christ and his crucifixion is the best known legend in the Western world. Besides the modern take on the story, there are several departures from the tale as it is known, so I can elaborate a bit. Since the story is told from the perspective of Judas, he becomes far more sympathetic; he is looking at Christ as having begun to believe his own press.

The message of peace and love is being subsumed by the growing belief among the crowds that Jesus is the Messiah, and is creating needless danger for them all. It is obvious even to the end that Judas loves Christ; that he is the unwitting pawn of God in fulfilling prophecy, and is in the end a tragic figure.

In fact, the whole story comes off as a tragedy here, rather than the message of hope and rebirth most take away from the gospels today. Here the story becomes a love triangle, with both Judas and Mary Magdalene being in love with the same man (not that way), meshing with Christ as the misunderstood preacher in conflict with the powers-that-be. Pilate also becomes a sympathetic character, who seems to go out of his way in trying to save Christ from his fate. The apostles are treated less reverently than usual; they seem to be mere hangers-on looking for fame by association. What was a contemporary and controversial take on the story in 1973 has become updated for the present in a more disturbing fashion.

Disturbing it was, at least to me. Seeing Herod basically become a Vegas night-club owner; seeing dancers in vinyl micro-minis gyrating up against Christ and Judas in dance numbers, and most of all seeing angels wearing dominatrix costumes made me feel more sympathetic to those who denounced the play nearly 30 years ago. The setting becomes an urban blight; with the Romans as jackbooted thugs and the Jewish leaders dressing suspiciously like the aliens in Dark City, and Judas as a singing James Dean. Only Christ seems immune from the overabundance of glitz; he starts out simply in modern dress but as the play progresses starts wearing attire familiar to the character. It seems the intent was to disturb and shock audiences while making it more youngster friendly, and it succeeded in this.

The updating of the play for the year 2000 extends to the casting choices. I don't believe the cast in the modern version had the singing talent of the original; but what they lacked in polish they made up for in passion. Voices often break with emotion during heated passages. Yet the power and emotion brought new life into the music. This was what I liked best about the updated version.

Bringing a stage play to film is always a dicey proposition. Often the camera only serves to tell you what someone else thinks you should look at rather than the stage as a whole. Seeing someone singing their heart out in a tight close-up can be uncomfortable at times. There were times when the camera became an asset; the steadicam shots allowed you to almost become part of the cast as it moved through and around them. That said, director Nick Morris has an MTV video background with his camera work, and I don't believe that is the best approach for a play. It seems to have become a hybrid of quick cutting film and the static viewing angle of a play; and not necessarily combining the best of both.

The tragic nature of the story as told in this version is disconcerting. Since Christ is portrayed with more attention to his frailties than his strengths, and the question of divinity is left in doubt, his death (without subsequent resurrection) is tragic. Judas is also a tragic figure, and even Pilate seems to be so; as he weeps from being forced to kill who he feels is an innocent man. The beginning of the play is the best; as hopes are high and even the conflicts are handled without the overwhelming sense of loss seen later. My opinion of this version of the play dropped steadily as it went on.

The technical aspects of the DVD are good but not great. Jesus Christ Superstar is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer which has great color and shine. The picture is mostly vivid and sharp, though there were times when small detail was lost with some evident edge enhancement. I've seen far worse; but I've seen better. It's very watchable still; the picture quality is not distracting. I was surprised to hear that the sound was a bit thin and underplayed; I had to turn the volume up to what would be earth-shattering levels on some discs. Once I turned it up, the sound had a nice clarity, though with less presence than I would have liked. The soundfield is wide enough, with voices covering the entire front, and the instrumentals reinforced from the rear surrounds. I was also a bit perplexed by the mix itself; when someone sings by themselves the sound is loud and full, but when 10 sing together the sound is always more quiet and subdued. All that said, once you turn it up the music sounds very good, with a high degree of fidelity and a great high end.

The extra features are pretty nice, with a 34 minute featurette leading the way. The makers and many of the cast get their say about why they made the choices they did, and how the filming of the play came about. A theatrical trailer, production notes, and cast and crew info are also offered. I'm happy with the package considering this is not advertised as a special edition.

I prefer the 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar to this new and glitzier version, but this was worth seeing at least once, if just for curiosity's sake. I'd put this DVD squarely in the rental category, but some might find it worth a purchase, particularly after a rental trial.

Rating: 2.0 stars out of 5.0 stars

  -Norman Short
The Jacksonville Film Journal