A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Norman Jewison’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a bright and sometimes breathtaking retelling of the rock opera of the same name. It is, indeed, a triumph over that work; using most of the same words and music, it succeeds in being light instead of turgid, outward-looking instead of narcissistic. Jewison, a director of large talent, has taken a piece of commercial shlock and turned it into a Biblical movie with dignity.
That isn’t easy to do. The life of Christ would seem to have an innate dignity to it, but only in such rare films as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” or Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” has Christ come off as human, strong and reachable. The character has a tendency to disintegrate before our eyes; it’s the only male role we can imagine where the cinematographer considers gauze over the lens. Christ seems wispy and too ethereal, and Mary Magdalene begins to steal scenes. The lowest point in this sort of thing was reached by Jeffrey Hunter as Christ in the remake of “King of Kings”--but let that memory steal quietly away.
Norman Jewison gives us a likable Christ in Ted Neeley, who sometimes seems a little bemused by his superstar status. The premise of the movie is that Christ was the first superstar--the first man with a hyperthyroid charisma. The ordinary people around him begin to get a little worried after a while; they like him and don’t want him to get in trouble with the Romans. Most worried of all is Judas, who advises Christ to maintain a low profile.
He doesn’t of course; but in deference to the several readers who didn’t like my review of “The Last of Sheila” because I gave away too much of the plot, I won’t reveal what happens to Christ in the end. Along the way, though, Jewison and his cinematographer Douglas Slocombe give us some of the most spectacular wide screen photography since “Doctor Zhivago,” and they achieve a color range that glows with life and somehow doesn’t make the desert look barren.