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Jesus Christ Superstar

MCA Music // G // August 31, 2004
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Walker | posted August 23, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The Film:
Just in case some of you were wondering, I actually am a professional film critic. What that means is that among other things, I get paid to watch movies and write about them. On average I watch 400 movies a year for work. That doesn't include short films or the occasional movie I watch just because I feel like watching a movie. The point of my telling you all of this is to drive home the fact that I've seen a lot of movies – somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 in the last five years alone. And with all the movies I've seen in my lifetime, there is still only one that gets mentioned when people ask me what my absolute, all-time favorite movie of all time is. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing the look of surprise on people's faces when they ask me the film critic's most commonly asked question, "What's your favorite movie of all time?" Without hesitation, the answer has been, and always will be, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jesus Christ Superstarstarted out as a rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, originally recorded as a concept album, and then performed as a series of concerts. From there it was adapted into a popular stage production in London, New York and Los Angeles, before making the transition to the big screen in 1973 courtesy of director Norman Jewison (Fiddler on the Roof, In the Heat of the Night).

Filmed on location in Israel with a cast of mostly unknown performers—many of whom appeared in the New York or Los Angeles stage productions—Superstarrecounts the last seven days in the life of Jesus (Ted Neeley). The story itself is from the point-of-view of the conflicted Judas (Carl Anderson), who believes Jesus has lost sight of his ideals. The volatile relationship between Jesus and Judas is the drama that drives the film, leading to Christ's inevitable betrayal at the hands of his best friend, and his subsequent crucifixion.

For every person who truly loves film—especially those who have chosen to make it integral part of their lives—there is the one film that captured their imagination and conveyed to them the full potential of the movies. For me, that film was Jesus Christ Superstar, which I saw for the first time when I was 5 years old. As a young child, I was initially drawn to the music and look of the film. Even then, it was difficult not to be mesmerized by the panoramic vistas of the countryside in and around Jerusalem, captured by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. Although I could barely read, I made my mother buy me a movie-making magazine (now sadly lost) with an article about Superstar. Inside the magazine was a series of behind-the-scenes pictures of the cast and crew, and that was the first time I realized that there was some sort of process involved in making movies. I suddenly knew that movies didn't just magically appear, but that somehow something went on to make them, and I knew I wanted to be part of that process.

Because Jesus Christ Superstar is an opera, with no spoken dialog, the film is freed from the constraints that apply to traditional filmmaking – even the rules of the standard musical don't apply to Superstar. The result is a film that is the forerunner of the long-form music video that would come along a decade later on MTV. As a director, Jewison is able to get performances from his actors that convey the emotion of Webber and Rice's music. At the same time, Jewison builds the film around the music itself, with careful attention paid to editing. Anthony Gibb's editing is masterful, utilizing a mix of conventional dissolves and fades along with cuts that work with the rhythm and the beat of the song.

Looking back on the film through the eyes of an adult, I can now fully appreciate the technical filmmaking craft involved in Jesus Christ Superstar, while at the same time understand why I loved the film so much as a kid. It is a purely crafted piece of cinema that relies on music and song to propel the story. Unlike so many other films that appealed to me as a child—films like Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughterand The Bears & IJesus Christ Superstarstill holds up.

Jesus Christ Superstarwas one of the last films to be shot in widescreen Todd-AO. Douglas Slocombe's beautiful photography captures the exquisite Israeli landscape, making it as much of a character as Monument Valley was John Ford in his films. On VHS Superstar suffered from image cropping that left much of the film unseen. But with this and an earlier DVD, release, the film is restored to its 2.35:1 beauty. Unfortunately, the picture has not been remastered. And that's not to say that the picture doesn't look good, as the colors are vibrant and the image is crisp. But there are moments when you can tell that the source the picture was mastered from has seen some wear and tear.

You would think, what with this being the special edition of Jesus Christ Superstar, and the fact that it is a musical, there would be better treatment of the sound. But the fact of the matter is that all you get is a simple Dolby 2.0 presentation – which would seem so bad, except that the earlier DVD release of Superstarfeatured a 5.0 surround presentation.

The special edition version of Jesus Christ Superstarisn't that much more special than the standard version released five years ago. In fact, the original release includes the original theatrical trailer and bios for the cast and crew (neither of which are on the special edition). But what this special edition does have – and what makes it a "must have" for die-hard fans – is an audio commentary by director Norman Jewison and actor Ted Neeley. Both men reminisce about the making of the film, with Jewison keeping much of his comments technical, and Neeley keeping his personal. Although it is not the best audio commentary, it certainly works. I'm of the belief that commentaries generally work best when a significant amount of time has passed, and the film has been allowed to have its own life. It is hard to accept someone on a commentary track talking about "this film was the best experience of my life," when the track was recorded five days after the film was completed. But when a film is older, there tends to be more sincerity in the fond recollections. And so when Jewison and Neeley both talk about how important this film was to them – 32 years after they made it – you tend to believe them a bit more.

It is Neeley's personal comments about the film, and his subsequent involvement in decades of live Superstar performances that are the most interesting. What is especially poignant is the fact that the commentary track was recorded only a month after the untimely death of Carl Anderson. Not only did Neeley and Anderson perform together in the film, they appeared side by side in thousands of stage performances. It is when Neeley talks about this, that the impact this musical has had on his life becomes clear. It is hard not to become emotionally moved when Neeley expresses how much he misses his close friend.

David Walker is the creator of BadAzz MoFo, a nationally published film critic, and the Writer/Director of Black Santa's Revenge with Ken Foree now on DVD [Buy it now]
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