When "Jesus Christ Superstar" opened on Broadway in 1971, it possessed a certain groovy, of-the-moment quality in depicting flower children caught up in the teachings of a charismatic leader.

In a new filmed version that airs tonight on local PBS stations, that era remains firmly documented in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's '70s rock songs, but the attempt to give the musical a more up-to-date context--in what sometimes looks like a nightmarish rave party and sometimes like lost edits from "Star Wars"--throws the music and the visuals out of whack.

Envisioned for a late-'90s British staging by Gale Edwards (who co-directed the film with Nick Morris), the new "Superstar" sets Christ's final days in a police state, as troops in Darth Vader-like helmets try to contain a movement among spiky-haired street youths who look like escapees from "Rent."

Filmed on a sound stage designed to resemble a graffiti-scarred city, the show more than ever suggests the barely controlled violence between followers who have misunderstood some of their teacher's lessons and a power structure out to crush anything it hasn't sanctioned.

Although these are interesting ideas, the relentlessly grim tone, along with the not entirely successful time shift, make this film a decidedly mixed success.

As always, the story is seen through the eyes of the disciple Judas, who tries to warn Jesus that the movement is going astray. Though dangerous-looking in a leather jacket, Jerome Pradon's Judas is a smart, lucid, intensely committed follower who becomes increasingly frustrated as his words--not to mention his unspoken ardor--go unheeded. All of this makes him more interesting to watch than Glenn Carter's pouty, pretty-boy Jesus, though Carter rouses himself long enough to deliver a stratospheric rendition of "Gethsemane."

Renee Castle makes Mary Magdalene seem sensual yet wholesome as she whispers a silky "I Don't Know How to Love Him." And the slick-haired, white-jacketed Rik Mayall seems to be doing a Noel Coward impersonation as he leads chorus girls and boys through a glitzy musical-theater, showstopper version of "King Herod's Song."

Originally decried by some religious groups, "Superstar" has never satisfied all of the people all of the time. Yet no matter how much this new rendition might resemble a misguided Gap ad, its story remains an often thoughtful and always provocative meditation on Christ's mission and the ways in which it is carried on.

*** "Jesus Christ Superstar" airs tonight at 8 on KCET and KVCR. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

  By DARYL H. MILLER, Times Staff Writer
©2001 Los Angeles Times