Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

G | 103 or 106-108 mins | Musical | July 1973

Director:

Norman Jewison

Cinematographer:

Douglas Slocombe

Editor:

Antony Gibbs

Production Designer:

Richard MacDonald

Production Company:

Universal Pictures
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HISTORY

The film begins with the actors arriving in the desert in a battered bus, then disembarking, donning costumes and setting up props, including the cross used for Jesus’ crucifixion. They fill the set, which includes a modern scaffolding flanking an ancient temple site, after which the film's title appears. The framing device recurs at the end of the film, when all of the actors except Ted Neeley, who plays Jesus, board the bus and drive away. Following that is the final shot, of the cross against a sunset, with a shepherd and his herd walking across the scene.
       Throughout the rest of the film, a “rock opera” consisting entirely of songs and sung dialogue, contemporary dress, language and objects are mixed with period details. Special effects, such as freeze frames, are used sparingly. In the scene in which Judas decides to betray Jesus, contemporary tanks and fighter planes appear. Later, as Jesus is led to Caiaphas, the crowd questions him as if they are modern-day reporters with invisible microphones. During the sequence recreating the Last Supper, a freeze-frame emulates the composition of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting of the scene. When Jesus wanders through Gethsemane, his upcoming crucifixion is alluded to with a montage of images from twenty-seven celebrated paintings, including those by Goya and Tintoretto.
       Jesus Christ Superstar began as a two-part concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, released in Great Britain in 1970. According to a PBS Great Performances television documentary, Rice had long been interested in the point of view of Judas Iscariot and was further inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “With God on Our Side.” Although ... More Less

The film begins with the actors arriving in the desert in a battered bus, then disembarking, donning costumes and setting up props, including the cross used for Jesus’ crucifixion. They fill the set, which includes a modern scaffolding flanking an ancient temple site, after which the film's title appears. The framing device recurs at the end of the film, when all of the actors except Ted Neeley, who plays Jesus, board the bus and drive away. Following that is the final shot, of the cross against a sunset, with a shepherd and his herd walking across the scene.
       Throughout the rest of the film, a “rock opera” consisting entirely of songs and sung dialogue, contemporary dress, language and objects are mixed with period details. Special effects, such as freeze frames, are used sparingly. In the scene in which Judas decides to betray Jesus, contemporary tanks and fighter planes appear. Later, as Jesus is led to Caiaphas, the crowd questions him as if they are modern-day reporters with invisible microphones. During the sequence recreating the Last Supper, a freeze-frame emulates the composition of the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting of the scene. When Jesus wanders through Gethsemane, his upcoming crucifixion is alluded to with a montage of images from twenty-seven celebrated paintings, including those by Goya and Tintoretto.
       Jesus Christ Superstar began as a two-part concept album by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, released in Great Britain in 1970. According to a PBS Great Performances television documentary, Rice had long been interested in the point of view of Judas Iscariot and was further inspired by Bob Dylan’s song “With God on Our Side.” Although the album was not a success in England, upon its release in America it became hugely popular and immediately produced several hit songs. Webber and Rice came to America for a 1970 concert tour, during which, as noted in the PBS documentary, producer Robert Stigwood and Beatles associate Peter Brown quickly secured the management rights to the property, guaranteeing a percentage of all earnings over the following eight years.
       Soon after the tour, a play based on the album opened on Broadway on 12 Oct 1971, moving to the London stage in 1972. It proved a long-running hit in both Britain and the U.S. Jewison stated in a Jun 1973 LAT article that he originally conceived of the film adaptation in Yugoslavia, while filming Fiddler on the Roof (1971, see above). According to a Dec 1972 LAT article, Barry Dennen, who played “Mendel” in Fiddler on the Roof and went on to star as “Pontius Pilate” in the Broadway and film versions of Jesus Christ Superstar , presented the album to Jewison. After listening to the recording obsessively, Jewison began to visualize a film version, and contacted Universal Studios, which at that point held the theatrical rights, committing himself outright as director. Rice stated in the extra materials on the film’s DVD release that he was originally hired to write the film’s screenplay, but after turning in an expensive, epic-scope version, was fired. The final script, co-written by Melvyn Bragg and Jewison, marked the director’s sole writing credit.
       The filmmakers emphasized in contemporary sources that the motion picture bore no relation to the stage production, but follows the structure of the album, which had twenty-eight distinct musical “scenes.” Some lyrics were changed for the film, and one new song was added, “Then We Are Decided,” which illustrates Caiaphas’ decision to urge Jesus’ assassination. The framing device was created by Jewison and Bragg for the film. Jewison stated in several contemporary sources that his vision for the film was one of timelessness. To achieve this, he mixed period details, such as the locations and some costumes, with contemporary features such as haircuts, language and weaponry. In the Jun 1973 LAT article, he noted that he borrowed many stylistic elements from his television background.
       As noted in press materials, over 3,000 actors and dancers auditioned for the film. Although most of the actors cast were neophytes, many of the key players had appeared in stage versions of Jesus Christ Superstar . Dennen, Yvonne Elliman (“Mary Magdalene”), Robert Bingham (“Caiaphas”) and Kurt Yaghjian (“Annas”) had originated their roles on Broadway. Carl Anderson had been the Broadway understudy for Ben Vereen as “Judas.” The role of Jesus marked the first film role for Ted Neeley, who went on to recreate the role throughout his career, as did Anderson, who died of leukemia in 2004. According to the PBS documentary, John Lennon was briefly considered to play the lead role in the stage version.
       Jesus Christ Superstar was shot entirely in Israel, including at the Bet Guvrin caves where David supposedly slew Goliath, Herod’s fortress the Herodian, Avdat, the valley of the Zohar, the amphitheater in Bet Shean and the Negev Desert. For the "Hosanna" sequence, the filmmakers cast children and adults from the nearby Sede Boquer kibbutz. The temperature during the fourteen-week production reached up to 120 degrees, Jewison stated in a Jun 1973 LAT article, negatively affecting both the equipment and cast and crew. The only set built was for the "Simon-Zealotes" sequence.
       In a Jul 1973 HR article Jewison noted that most of the film was shot silent, and in the final film, up to sixty percent of the pre-recorded singing was used. André Previn recorded the music, conducting a seventy-eight-piece orchestra at London’s Olympic Studios. A Sep 1972 Var article added that the film was developed at the Berkey Pathé Humphries Laboratories in Givatayim, Israel. According to a Jun 1973 DV article, the film cost $3.5 million.
       Controversies over the production began prior to shooting, when Orthodox Jews in the Israeli Parliament raised opposition to a Christian production being filmed in the Jewish state. According to a Sep 1972 Var article, although the government offered no official support, the Israeli Film Centre helped pave the way for the production. While the stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar had elicited condemnation from some Christian groups (who were concerned with the portrayal of Christ as a flawed human and Judas as sympathetic), the film engendered more controversy from Jewish associations. Most objected to the depiction of the Jews as the killers of Christ, while Pontius Pilate hesitates to crucify him. [Similar accusations were made against the 1988 Martin Scorsese picture The Last Temptation of Christ , as well as Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ .]
       As noted in a Jun 1973 NYT article, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, representing nine Jewish groups and ninety-three human relations agencies, accused Universal and Jewison of distorting the Biblical story and enflaming anti-Semitism. In addition, the American Jewish Committee labeled the film dangerous and denounced it in a press conference, detailed in an Aug 1973 LAT article. They furthermore objected to the images of modern army vehicles in the scenes in which Judas considers betraying Christ, which the Committee felt implicated Israel as a militaristic state. Finally, both black and Jewish groups protested the casting of a black actor as Judas, noting the villainous nature of the role and the possibility of exacerbating rifts in black-Jewish relations.
       In Rome, Roman Catholics demonstrated at the film’s opening, not realizing that the Pope had signaled his official approval of the film, as reported in a Feb 1974 Parade item. In addition, popular singer Glen Campbell released a single challenging the film, entitled “I Knew Jesus Before He Was a Superstar.” Jewison responded to the debates in a Jul 1973 HR article, stating that he was shocked by the allegations and that the film was meant merely as entertainment, with color-blind casting. In a Jul 1973 LAT article on the controversies, Jewison added, “Young people are not concerned with the prejudices of the past.” The various protests and responses did not hurt the film’s box-office success, however; it rose to number eight on the year's box office charts, and a Jan 1974 HR article reported Jesus Christ Superstar as Universal’s top money-maker of 1973.
       Many of the reviews, which were mixed, compared Jesus Christ Superstar to Godspell , another 1973, modernized musical about Jesus and the gospels (see above). Despite the critical reception, the film earned the following awards and nominations: an Academy Award nomination for Best Score; the BAFTA Award for Best Sound Track and nominations for Best Cinematography and Costume Design; and Golden Globe Award nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture Actor and Most Promising Newcomer (for both, Carl Anderson and Ted Neeley) and Best Motion Picture Actress (Yvonne Elliman).
       The film was re-released in 70mm, first in London and then, on 20 Sep 1974, at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. After many theatrical revivals, the play was again revived in 2006 starring Neeley, Elliman, Dennen and Ben Vereen. Billed as the farewell tour of the show, it was reported to be Neeley’s last stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar .
       Var reported in Jan 1973 that theatrical producer Pierre Robin was beginning a film version of Jesus Christ Superstar . Universal, Leeds Music Corp. and Leeds Music Ltd. obtained a preliminary injunction against the production, which was never completed.
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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
2 Jul 1973
p. 4604.
Daily Variety
25 Jun 1973.
---
Daily Variety
27 Aug 1973.
---
Hollywood Reporter
25 Aug 1972
p. 13.
Hollywood Reporter
20 Oct 1972
p. 12.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jun 1973
p. 3, 10.
Hollywood Reporter
3 Jul 1973
p. 8, 10.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jan 1974.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
4 Jun 1973.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
6 Jul 1973.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
20 Jul 1973
Section B, pp. 1-2.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
21 Sep 1974.
---
Los Angeles Times
14 Oct 1972.
---
Los Angeles Times
24 Dec 1972
Calendar, p. 1, 27, 29.
Los Angeles Times
21 Jun 1973
Section IV, pp. 17-18.
Los Angeles Times
15 Jul 1973
Calendar, p. 1, 20, 23, 25 and 27.
Los Angeles Times
10 Aug 1973.
---
Los Angeles Times
12 Aug 2006.
---
Los Angeles Times
15 Aug 2006
Section E, p. 1, 5.
New York Times
24 Jun1973.
---
New York Times
9 Aug 1973
p. 28.
Newsweek
9 Jul 1973.
---
Parade
24 Feb 1974.
---
Rolling Stone
2 Aug 1973.
---
Time
30 Jun 1973.
---
Time
27 Aug 1973.
---
Variety
20 Sep 1972
p. 1, 60.
Variety
10 Jan 1973.
---
Variety
3 Mar 1973.
---
Variety
27 Jun 1973.
---
WSJ
17 Aug 1973.
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Norman Jewison-Robert Stigwood Production
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam op
Key grip
Gaffer
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
Prop master
COSTUMES
Cost des
Ward supv
SOUND
Sd re-rec
Sd re-rec
Sd ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Asst ed
Sd mixer
DANCE
Choreographed by
MAKEUP
Hairdresser
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod supv
Asst to the prods
Post-prod supv
Prod mgr
Scr supv
Prod accountant
Prod secy
Post-prod secy
Unit pub
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar , music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Tim Rice (New York, 12 Oct 1971).
MUSIC
Overture by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
SONGS
"Heaven on Their Minds," "What's the Buzz?" "Strange Thing Mystifying," "Then We Are Decided," "Everything's Alright," "This Jesus Must Die," "Hosanna," "Simon-Zealotes," "Poor Jerusalem," "Pilate's Dream," "The Temple," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Damned for All Time/Blood Money," "The Last Supper," "Gethesmane (I Only Want to Say)," "The Arrest," "Peter's Denial," "Pilate and Christ," "King Herod's Song," "Could We Start Again, Please?" "Judas' Death," "Trial Before Pilate," "Superstar," "Crucifixion" and "John Nineteen: Forty-one," words by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
DETAILS
Release Date:
July 1973
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 18 Jul 1973
Production Date:
20 Aug--24 Nov 1972 in Israel
Copyright Claimant:
Universal Pictures
Copyright Date:
27 June 1973
Copyright Number:
LP43776
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
Widescreen/ratio
Todd-AO 35
Duration(in mins):
103 or 106-108
MPAA Rating:
G
Countries:
Israel, United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
23636
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In the last week of Jesus’ life, his good friend, Judas Iscariot, begins to doubt his sincerity and integrity, wondering if the vastly popular figure has become too invested in his own glory. Judas, who believes that Jesus is a man rather than the son of God, pleads with his friend to heed his words that the Romans will destroy both him and the Jews as a whole for Jesus’ heresy. Jesus counsels Judas and his other followers not to question the future, as they are unable to comprehend their preordained path. Judas further berates Jesus for consorting with Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute who is now Jesus’ most fervent devotee. Jesus defends Mary, but Judas, who feels that their energies should be reserved solely for Jesus’ principles of caring for the poor and infirm, continues to chastise her for minor expenditures. Meanwhile, the leader of the Pharisees, Caiaphas, frets about Jesus’ growing power over the Jews, and decides to spur his council to attack him. Soon after, while Jesus’ followers sing his praises and throng him in the streets, Caiaphas convinces the council to crush Jesus. Judas, noting with mounting despair the crowd’s increasingly idolatry of Jesus, recoils when Simon Zealotes urges Jesus to politicize his power by denouncing Rome and accepting a kingship. Jesus sadly rebukes Simon Zealotes by declaring that no one understands the true scope of power and glory. At the same time, Roman governor Pontius Pilate dreams of an amazing Galilean man, for whose death he will be blamed throughout eternity. Upon discovering that his temple has been desecrated by thieves, prostitutes, drug dealers and traders, Jesus wrecks the stalls in a fury, then ... +


In the last week of Jesus’ life, his good friend, Judas Iscariot, begins to doubt his sincerity and integrity, wondering if the vastly popular figure has become too invested in his own glory. Judas, who believes that Jesus is a man rather than the son of God, pleads with his friend to heed his words that the Romans will destroy both him and the Jews as a whole for Jesus’ heresy. Jesus counsels Judas and his other followers not to question the future, as they are unable to comprehend their preordained path. Judas further berates Jesus for consorting with Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute who is now Jesus’ most fervent devotee. Jesus defends Mary, but Judas, who feels that their energies should be reserved solely for Jesus’ principles of caring for the poor and infirm, continues to chastise her for minor expenditures. Meanwhile, the leader of the Pharisees, Caiaphas, frets about Jesus’ growing power over the Jews, and decides to spur his council to attack him. Soon after, while Jesus’ followers sing his praises and throng him in the streets, Caiaphas convinces the council to crush Jesus. Judas, noting with mounting despair the crowd’s increasingly idolatry of Jesus, recoils when Simon Zealotes urges Jesus to politicize his power by denouncing Rome and accepting a kingship. Jesus sadly rebukes Simon Zealotes by declaring that no one understands the true scope of power and glory. At the same time, Roman governor Pontius Pilate dreams of an amazing Galilean man, for whose death he will be blamed throughout eternity. Upon discovering that his temple has been desecrated by thieves, prostitutes, drug dealers and traders, Jesus wrecks the stalls in a fury, then wanders alone considering his upcoming fate and the overwhelming pressure of the thousands who demand hope, healing and aid from him. He gains some comfort from Mary Magdalene, who wonders how best to love and care for such an extraordinary man. Judas, meanwhile, is tortured by his misgivings about Jesus and feels compelled to put a stop to his growing fame. Despite his fears that he will be forever damned, he visits the Pharisees and, after refusing payment to lead them to Jesus and insisting that Jesus would not object to his actions, reveals where they can find and arrest Jesus. That night, the apostles gather with Jesus for the Passover seder in a lush olive grove. There, Jesus announces with bitterness that one of them has betrayed him and that Simon Peter will soon deny him. Wondering if anyone will remember him when he is gone, Jesus directs the men to consider the wine his blood, and the bread his body. Judas confesses his deed, accusing Jesus of destroying their ideals, and asks him how he let “things get so out of hand.” Afterward, Jesus wanders the garden of Gethsemane, questioning his strength and fearful of the trials to come. By the time the apostles awaken in the morning, Jesus is being imprisoned, and he counsels them not to fight the Roman guards. A mob of people fall in behind him, and as he is led to Caiaphas, they become more and more frenzied and taunting. Meanwhile, Peter, John and Mary are walking by a group of people who recognize Peter as a supporter of Jesus, but to Mary’s horror, Peter denies knowing Jesus. At the mob’s urging, Caiaphas brings Jesus to Pilate, who is derogatory and scornful. Asked repeatedly if he considers himself the son of God or the king of the Jews, Jesus repeats that these are titles others have given him. Pilate insists that Herod, the king of Judea, be the one to sentence Jesus. The king, a debauched reveler, commands Jesus to prove his divinity, then throws him out in petulant disgust when Jesus refuses to comply. That night, Jesus is badly beaten by Roman guards, filling Judas with remorse and causing him to hang himself. Jesus is brought once again before Pilate, who hesitates to condemn him to death and instead has thirty-nine lashes administered. As Jesus lies on the ground in pain, Pilate urges him to defend himself. When Jesus refuses to repent, the crowd demands that Pilate crucify him, and finally Pilate accedes. By dawn, Jesus is forced to carry the heavy cross on which he will be crucified. As he is nailed to the wood, a crown of thorns ringing his head, Mary Magdalene breaks down in tears but the guards merely laugh. On the cross, Jesus wails, “God, why have you forgotten me?” before dying. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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