“Lloyd-Webber’s awful stuff runs for years and years and years”
Roger Waters, It’s a Miracle
The knee-jerk reaction to Andrew Lloyd-Webber – that he is a puppet-faced Tory cheerleader responsible for the most depressingly awful populist musical atrocities of the last 40 years, almost single-handedly making the West End musical into the ghastly thing that is is today – has more than a touch of truth to it, but I tried to approach Jesus Christ Superstar with an open mind nevertheless. After all, this rock opera retelling of the final days of Christ had a certain potential – an early 1970s collision of prog rock and glam rock, a high camp Biblical epic and a potentially entertainingly ludicrous hippy musical extravaganza. And with director Norman Jewison at the helm, there was no reason to believe that the film would not be as impressive a production as it could be.
And yes, the film looks impressive, with its Israeli locations having an authentic feel, spectacular (and yes, deliciously kitsch) costumes and the sometimes delirious collision of the modern and the ancient, explained away by the opening scenes where a busload of hippies arrive in the desert to re-enact the passion of the Christ – a justification for the inclusion of hippy fashions, tanks and machine guns amongst the New Testament story that slightly ultimately detracts from the effect (better to just have the mix of the ancient and the modern as an unexplained touch of strangeness, I’d say).
Unfortunately, the film falls down thanks to the bloody awful music that propels the story. You might know a few tunes from Jesus Christ Superstar, but those numbers (or, most significantly, the small parts of them that are familiar) are the exception – for much of the film, we get half-baked semi-songs, admittedly very much in the style of ‘proper’ opera, where what would in any other circumstance be regular dialogue pointlessly and tunelessly sung. There are some decent set pieces, mostly courtesy of Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot, but for the most part, this is plodding, caterwauling rubbish that anyone with a modicum of musical taste will find almost unbearable.
If you are an easily shocked Christian, you might find the suggestions that Jesus (a rather bland Ted Neeley) was more man than Messiah to be a bit shocking – though the film changes lyrics to remove the more potentially blasphemous moments, including hints that his relationship with Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) might have been less than chaste (there are still a couple of lingering looks that suggest this, but they remain open to interpretation, giving the filmmakers a get-out clause). But this is pretty tame, unprovocative stuff for the most part, never likely to frighten the horses or offer a radical reinterpretation of the official line.
A project like Jesus Christ Superstar certainly has potential, and Jewison’s film does its best with the available material – but this is plodding, tuneless, uninspired and irritatingly bland stuff for the most part, dosed with a sense of smugness in its own importance and pretty much of a crucifixion-level ordeal for the most part.