REVIEWS: 'JESUS CHRIST
PROBABLY the most
definitive version of "Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS)," the rock
opera that redefined the Christ figure and modernized the concept of religion
for a generation, just might be languishing, forgotten and unused, in
video rental shops or bargain counters.
"Jesus Christ Superstar: 2000," aired here by cable channel
Star World during last year's Holy Week, is gaining a following in Europe
and the United States.
The high accolades for this GenX version of the singing Jesus come from
no less than Andrew Lloyd Webber, the musical theater genius who composed
the music to Tim Rice's brilliant lyrics in the '70s.
"I've waited 30 years to see this 'Superstar,' " he said. After
watching Australian director Gale Edwards' London revival some years ago,
he knew it was time to reinvent the play for today's audience. What better
way to do it than shoot Edwards' concept for the video format?
According to Edwards, "Andrew said I really want a new production
and I want it redefined for the late 1990s. I don't want a revival of
a rock opera with everyone in bell-bottom pants leaping about."
"JCS" fans will inevitably make comparisons between this new
"Superstar" and the popular 1973 movie, which was basically
a hippie reenactment in 1970 Israel.
A certain resistance is certainly expected from that particular generation
who first saw Jesus' bitter human side in "Gethsemane" and sang
the pangs of unrequited love in Magdalene's "I Don't Know How to
Love Him." It was with a mixture of dread and fear, springing from
my own childhood loyalties, that I tuned in to "JCS 2000" last
year. I had expected a ho-hum treatment at the most, and a travesty at
A year later, after repeated viewings have forcibly replaced my worn-out
VHS with a DVD, the jury is finally in. Webber, who produced the video,
and Andrews, did a remarkable job of making "JCS" relevant again,
without in any way imitating or diminishing the 1973 movie.
"JCS 2000" is neither a copycat nor a successor. It can stand
on its own. In fact, watching both versions consecutively can be a gem
of a theatrical experience.
Movie director Norman Jewison lets his landscape do the talking. Nature
acts as the invisible hand of an angry God and at the same time as a mirror
baring all the secrets of the major players. Black storm clouds literally
close in on the fleeing Judas (Carl Anderson). Vultures hover the skies
of Israel as the high priests plot Christ's death.
In one of the film's moving moments, the shade of night wrestles with
the rising dawn in tune to the conflicted Jesus' inner struggle whether
or not to give up his life. And when Christ crosses the point of no return,
he descends the slopes of a mountain that literally divides him from anguished
apostles pleading, "Could We Start Again Please?"
Edwards' story of
the Messiah's last days is shot inside a studio, staged as musical theater,
not a movie. Every space and corridor of what appears to be a simple set
is maximized to create mood, texture and message. The claustrophobic set,
aided by a very grim, stylish production design, actually works in her
favor. Christ's Israel is depicted as a totalitarian state with black-clad,
armored temple guards and Roman soldiers looking like Darth Vader disciples.
The shadowy High Priests are not as humane as their bearded, red-garbed
movie counterparts who still deliberated on and weighed Jesus' fate. The
new ones act like his death is already a done deal in their council meeting.
A growling Caiaphas (Frederick Owens) is pushed and provoked, not subtly
balanced, by a new bald Annas (Michael Shaeffer) who is a cross between
Nosferatu and the aliens in "Dark City."
This Jerusalem certainly feels like the real one, and the subdued and
eerie lighting gives a whole new meaning to the term "black as sin."
When they finally come out of their shell, the evil-ly grinning people
glide like predatory vampires. No wonder Jesus has to die for them. And
He dies literally in their hands.
Jewison's horrific interpretation of Christ's flogging by a soldier amid
bloodthirsty a crowd is still unmatched by any Jesus movie. Edwards' takes
an entirely different turn. The infamous 39 lashes are a stunning choreography
of sadists pirouetting through the air to hit the bound Messiah, leaving
bloody marks on his broken body.
The only kind of light the bad guys are comfortable with are the cold
decadent ones. Instead of traipsing through a pool, Rik Mayall's Herod
dances the Charleston with his minions in a glittering Las Vegas casino.
Unlike the movie's funnier Josh Mostel who just lashes out at Christ,
Mayall's feral grin is belied by a hard glint. This Herod isn't gay, he's
Genuine warm radiance filters through this dark Jerusalem only when Jesus
and his yuppie, inter-racial followers enter in rainbow costumes. It's
not as obvious as circling haloes, but the difference is clearly felt
like fresh air coming into a polluted garbage dump. While the movie practically
makes the disciples one faceless interchangeable bunch, this version makes
each one a type of the Nexter crowd. The wide-eyed Asian (John), the Afro-American
panther (James), the Tom Cruise lookalike (Andrew?), the bespectacled
Tony Vincent's Simon, with blond mohawk hair, grunge khaki look and in-your-face
attitude lives up to his Zealot's reputation. He's so gung-ho about making
war that Jesus singles him out, "Why are you obsessed with fighting
times and fates you can't defy?" ("What's the Buzz?") The
warning comes too late.
In his unforgettable
titular solo, this Simon and
his fanatics attack the temple guards, increasing the tension and the
powers-that-be's anger against the Messiah. In the movie, Larry Marshall's
catharsis for his liberation expresses itself in mere danced dreams.
Overall, the singing in the movie is much better. Ted Neeley's Jesus doesn't
just bawl out effortlessly the high notes that "JCS 2000's"
Glenn Carter tries hard to reach-he acts out the lyrics in a wide range
of emotions: despair, anger, resignation, love. Anderson's Judas can out-sing
Jerome Pradon's anytime; the French actor's inability to hit certain notes
sometimes makes his voice screechy and edgy. Barry Dennen's Pontius Pilate
conveys arrogance, haute aristocracy, and fear and growing respect for
Christ all at the same time, while Fred Johannsen's military governor
just swings from intimidation to guilt.
The acting prize for
character complexity, though, goes to "JCS 2000." Jesus, Judas,
Magdalene (Renee Carter) and the rest of the disciples act like friends
who have been through a lot together. A very intense, memorable "Last
Supper" shows how pain of betrayal and disillusionment can cut deeper
because of that friendship. Each shattering close-up of an actor's face-confused,
angry, terrified, weeping-echoes Judas' accusation against Jesus: "This
is where you brought us to-our ideals die around us, and all because of
The triangle between
Judas, Jesus and Magdalene is tighter in this version. The two closest
to the future king are always battling it out on who gets to be top dog.
While Yvonne Ellison's Magdalene is a milquetoast, Renee Castle's is a
very modern woman who speaks her mind, puts her foot down and fights against
her own passions for Christ.
Inevitably, the spotlight is trained on Jesus and Judas. The '70s interpretation
casts Judas as an unwitting scapegoat maneuvered to betray a messiah who
is bent on his own death. These motivations carried the actors, sweeping
each with several dominant emotions: Anderson was angry and rebellious
most of the time, while Neely's distant Jesus (except for "Gethesemane")
generally showed detachment, coolness and a sense of fatality.
blond-surfer Christ is stronger and infinitely more charismatic. He's
not led to his destiny like a lamb to the slaughter; he's marching out
with determined face and fixed eyes. Even in his worst moments, he is
always reaching out with compassion-to the crowds, Pilate, Mary and Judas.
Pradon won rave reviews
for Judas with good reason. His complex character is intelligent one moment,
childlike the next, Jesus' worst critic and his best friend. While Anderson's
Judas was afraid for Israel, Pradon's also cares what happens to his Messiah.
In the end, his betrayal springs from love, not hatred.
When Christ is crucified,
he feels it, too, in spite of his taunts in the climactic title song.
In one of the bloodiest scenes in any Christ movie, Judas returns as a
red-satinned angel from hell accompanying a blood-streaked Jesus carrying
his cross to Golgotha. News cameras crowd around Christ to capture the
deed for eternity. This scene is in stark contrast to the 1973 version
which has Jesus' newfound fame symbolized by the transformation of his
torn clothes into impeccably white and sparkling robes.
Like the movie, "JCS 2000" ends with a question mark, the same
that the authors had asked from the start. That many young people rediscover
their Christian faith through the musical is laden with poetic irony;
Webber and Rice wrote it as Jews questioning the tenets of Christianity.
In all versions, Judas always asks: "Who are you? What have you sacrificed?"
The last shots always end with a cross. The movie's long wooden one was
draped over a fiery setting sun and rooted in dusty earth. The filmed
stage version's is formed out of an arrangement of incandescent glittering
lights. Both proclaim the cross' enduring power over the centuries. Regardless
of our faith, it is the question that faces us now this Holy Week. If
we need a more modern, entertaining way to reexamine or reaffirm that
faith, there are two versions of "JCS" to choose from.