A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 35 – Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar – April 5th, 2010

Yes, we did pick this intentionally for today. Next year we’ll follow Simon Pegg’s suggestion to find our favorite zombie movie but this year we’ll stick with Jesus.

Now, there are two things that are pretty key about this movie that should turn me off. One, it’s overtly religious and I’m not, but I am fascinated by religions and their stories. Two, it’s a musical, and as I’ve mentioned, I’m not big on musicals as a genre, but the music in this is so good. I’m just very picky about musicals and this one just works for me in all its 1970s dirty hippie fringed glory. I also love the movie’s conceit of the performance of the show, beginning with the actors arriving in a bus with all their costumes and props and unpacking while the key players are introduced through their behavior and eventual receipt of their costumes. I mean, look at how Herod is introduced, climbing up onto the bus, then sitting back on the boxes in a pose that he later takes up while on his throne. It’s a great way to introduce the players, not too clobbery but not too subtle either. And then at the end they pack up, leaving the cross behind. Not being a religious person, I can’t speak to the specifics of how someone who is would see the ending, but I can say that to me it’s a supremely melancholy way to close the whole thing, even beyond the story being told by the players.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a former theater techie and love seeing the workings behind the scenes sometimes. It wouldn’t work for a lot of movies, but something like this – a movie based on a stage show – can get away with it and, in my opinion, be enriched by it. It also makes for a pared down movie. The scaffolding that Caiaphas and the priests stand on is just that: Scaffolding. It isn’t so much a set as a platform. The soldiers are just guys in camo pants and muscle shirts, but the helmets and spears make it clear what they are. Much like how I felt about the Frost/Nixon stage show versus the movie, the spare sets and props put the focus on the performances. It’s been put on the screen here to great effect. And then there’s the melding of the then-modern with the ancient. The setting is a ruin, the story two thousand years old, but the soldiers wear combat boots and they’re selling machine guns in the temple scene then there are the tanks and Herod’s whole scene and then there’s all the fringe. Granted, it also dates the movie pretty obviously, but in my opinion it still works.

So I love the production itself, but what about the story? I love the story too. It’s a difficult one to watch play out, especially since its major plot points are well known outside the movie itself. We all know what happens to Jesus. We know about Judas, we know about Mary, we know about Peter and Herod and Pilate, we know the names, we know the chain of events and their outcome. And the movie ends before the resurrection. While it’s alluded to at the end, it doesn’t happen on screen. To me, there’s a sense of tragic inevitability in the movie and it’s supported by Jesus predicting much of what happens. He knows what’s coming too, just like we do. I mentioned that it seems to end on a melancholy note, and I think that’s important. The players pack up their bus and the mood is subdued in a way I recognize from the end of many shows. Something magical and wonderful is over and there might well be other wonderful times ahead, but this one is over and you’ll never get it back. Maybe it’s a simplistic comparison to make, but I think the movie does it intentionally and it’s done well.

On a totally unrelated note, I have to admit that having realized that Barry Dennen, who plays Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar also played Claude LaMont in Kentucky Fried Movie I can’t help but snicker at him. I mean, he’s very good in this, but my brain supplies the “poisonous fish” line when I see him.


April 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jesus Christ Superstar

March 4, 2010

Jesus Christ Superstar

I love, love, LOVE this movie!  It was, for many years, traditional Easter viewing for me.  Although I suppose it’s not an Easter movie since it doesn’t deal at all with Jesus rising from the grave, but deals only with the days leading up to the crucifixion.    It makes perfect Easter viewing for me, however, for a number of reasons.  Primarily because it does such a great job of humanizing Jesus, Judas, Pilot and all.  I’ve never been a religious person.  I was taken to church by my parents throughout my youth, but I never bought into the notion of miracles or god or any of that.  I can, however, believe in the power of charisma and the dangers of politics.  So there’s a good story there in the tale of Jesus, and some good sentiment.  Which comes across well in this movie.

Things I love about this movie:

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s vision and music.  A lot of the accomplishment in this movie is taking the musty and often confusing garble that is the bible and extracting a few key scenes.  The music is inspiring, beautiful and gets caught in your head.  I never have any trouble suspending my disbelief while watching a musical, and this one ranks amongst my favorites.

Norman Jewison’s direction is fantastic too.  He takes the stage play and merges it with the scenery of ruins in Israel in a fascinating way.  He uses sparse props and minimal costumes but lets most of the story come from the performances, which is a great stylistic choice for the movie.  (In particular I’m grabbed in the overture when the bus filled with cast members drives up and they start unloading props and costumes.  Every character is introduced quickly through just their actions in this scene in a clever and subtle way.  It works on so many levels!  Here we know there’s going to be a juxtaposition of modern (well early seventies) times and the biblical story.  We are introduced to the sparse feel of the film – basically told that it’s a bunch of hippies in the desert putting on a play for us.  And we see the actors getting into their roles.  It blows my mind.)

All the ecstatic hippies.  This movie was filmed in 1972 – the year I was born.  The hippie movement was near it’s end then I suppose, but here are all these long haired kids in their robes and bell bottoms and vests, and they look like they’re having such fun.  It’s like watching Woodstock: a window into an idealized world that perhaps only existed in a collective dream, but which has some appeal.

Mostly I just love a great messiah story.  Dark City, Matrix, Dune… I love the dilemma facing those destined to great power.  Sure, this movie makes Jesus out to be more a political figure than a religious one (which in a historical context seems true to me) but it’s still all about what his power brings him and how he and those around him cope with it.

So happy Easter to those of you who celebrate it!  Enjoy a good movie and some time with friends and family.

April 4, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment