This is part three of my "Films about Jesus" Christmas Review.
My introduction is here.
Part one was Last Days in the Desert
Part two was The Nativity Story
Jesus Christ Superstar (the movie) is unique from the rest of the films I'll see in a number of ways: First, it's a musical (actually, 'rock opera'), which sets it apart immediately; Second, which I wasn't prepared for, was the occasionally modern props (more on that later); and last, it's told mostly from the perspective of Judas.
JC:SS (the movie) is a film of it's time. From the first couple minutes it is immediately obvious what decade it was filmed in. The movie oozes the 70's in every frame from the dancing to the hair, clothes, and hippy Jesus. It wouldn't be so bad if I wasn't left wondering, after seeing a machine gun, whether I'm watching an ancient Jesus, or a modern hippy Jesus. Then suddenly the guards are carrying spears. It's like they couldn't decide so they blended the eras together. The cast arrives on a bus, plus some tanks and jets make an appearance; while Pilate and the priests are not wearing modern clothes, Herod and Judas are. It's confusing. A modern day Jesus story is fine (and it's been done) but the inconsistency is distracting and had no apparent purpose.
The other distraction is the attempt to turn this from a play into a movie. It seems that the director tried to meet the two mediums half way, with very mixed results (see Doubt on how to do this well). Every scene is treated like a stage play, with a bridge to get to where the action is going to happen, but other than these little bridges there is very little attempt to adapt the play into a movie. It gives the movie a disjointed and sometimes awkward feel.
The acting was passable and the singing was at points mediocre, with the exception (on both accounts) of Judas who at times felt like the only human figure on stage. I didn't enjoy most of the songs, and lyrically they were (unintentionally) funny. Other things, like Mary's very close relationship to Jesus, didn't really phase me as Jesus is mostly a stoic figure throughout.
The play isn't so much a retelling of the last week of Christ's life or about Jesus teachings (none of Jesus teachings are reflected upon) but agnostic ramblings set to music. Two things at the end make this clear: After an hour and a half Jesus never says who he is, and his disciples never say who he is, but Judas is certain he's just a man and so is Pilate. Then come the questions in the titular song, "Who are you? What have you sacrificed? ... Do you think you are who they say you are?" But rather than explore the questions through the play we only get the opinions of a sympathetic Judas.
Which leads to the end of the movie. The actors, out of their costumes, file back onto the bus to leave, some of them glancing away at the empty cross in the distance, some of them ignoring it. Judas is one of the last ones getting on (the only other character to die in the movie) but Jesus is inexplicably absent. Now, a resurrection scene isn't necessary (Mark doesn't have one), but JC:SS isn't taking it's omission from Mark, the bus scene - to those who are paying attention, is making a statement about the resurrection, Jesus Christ and how the story should actually be understood.
The death knell for Jesus Christ Superstar comes, not when one realises it has aged badly, or that there were some very odd creative choices, but instead when given the last chance to leave the questions about Jesus Christ open, the movie decides to answer them for the audience in a way that is passive aggressive.