ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (SOUNDTRACK) (1973)
1) Overture; 2) Heaven On Their Minds; 3) What's The Buzz; 4) Strange Thing Mystifying; 5) Then We Are Decided; 6) Everything's Alright; 7) This Jesus Must Die; 8) Hosanna; 9) Simon Zealotes; 10) Poor Jerusalem; 11) Pilate's Dream; 12) The Temple; 13) I Don't Know How To Love Him; 14) Damned For All Time/Blood Money; 15) The Last Supper; 16) Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say); 17) The Arrest; 18) Peter's Denial; 19) Pilate And Christ; 20) King Herod's Song; 21) Could We Start Again; 22) Judas's Death; 23) Trial Before Pilate (including The 39 Lashes); 24) Superstar; 25) Crucifixion; 26) John Nineteen Forty-One.
By the time Norman Jewison got around to filming JCS for the big screen, it had already evolved from its early beginnings as a Decca «concept album» into a lavish musical, staged in London, on Broadway, and beginning to be exported to other locations as well. With several years of fleshing out the structure, arrangements, and performances, it is no wonder that the 1973 version sounds like a more «complete» experience than the 1970 original, even if this should not be forcing fans of Ian Gillan, Murray Head, and Joe Cocker's Grease Band to immediately switch their loyalties.
My own loyalties, though, have firmly stayed on the side of the movie soundtrack all through the years. Which is a bit comical, since I was never a huge fan of the movie itself. Like so many other rock-based movies of the 1970s (remember Ken Russell?), it leaned a bit too heavily on the kitsch side, and ended up dated and ridiculous in quite a few aspects. I do not actually mind some of the anachronisms — arming the Romans with Uzis and setting the Jewish priests up on scaffolds added a fun element, and the scene of Judas running away from rolling tanks kind of sticks in your memory, like it or not — but the «glam» elements of contemporary culture, scattered all over the place, are as out of place today as they used to be then. It is true that Rice's lyrics are replete with references to contemporary pop culture (referring to Jesus as «top of the poll» or asking «did you know your death would be a record breaker?» is certainly not the way a more clerically-minded person would address the same issues) — but I still believe that is exactly where it all should have stopped, because now, instead of watching what could easily have been one of the finest JC-movies of all time, we are forced to watch a movie about Afros, R&B dancing, hippie clothes and hairstyles and lots of other stuff that, in the end, narrow the range and scope of JCS instead of attempting to broaden it.
Which is all the more pitiful considering just how perfect the assembled cast is. Of the original UK cast, only Yvonne Elliman as Mary and Barry Dennen as Pilate reprise their parts — for very good reason, and, in fact, this particular stab of Dennen's at the Pilate role easily trumps his first take: now he is a very smug, self-confident, even a little bit tricksterish Pilate that finally falls victim to a shattering nervous breakdown. Bob Bingham's deep bass makes a Caiaphas to die for; Josh Mostel may be overacting the buffoonery King Herod part a little bit when compared to Mike d'Abo's more restrained performance, but I would say that, out of all the parts, this is one part that does not suffer too much from overacting.
Then there is the magnificent Carl Anderson as Judas; predictably, there was a bit of fuss about a black member of the cast playing the greatest antagonist in history — but even if we are stupid enough to accept the «racist» argument in the first place, let us remind ourselves that the Judas of JCS was never intended to be portrayed as «evil» or, in any way, a «malicious» person. And Carl succeeds in showing his inner torment far better than Murray Head — by playing out the role with noticeably more passion, aggression, and versatility.
Finally, the completely unknown Ted Neeley — together with Carl, both were understudies in the original Broadway version, and got the movie part through sheer luck — will always be the ideal Jesus for me. His voice is more thin and frail than Gillan's, which suits the character quite well, yet he is still able to raise it to a shrill scream when necessary (on ʽGethsemaneʼ, for instance), and he conveys the «sad little man» aspect of Jesus with great skill and subtlety. Nor do his arias sound rushed any more — ʽPoor Jerusalemʼ is now taken at just the right tempo that gives Ted plenty of time to hit each syllable as hard as is required for a prophetic passage.
It is interesting that the performances in the movie differ quite sharply from bits and pieces of the original Broadway stage version that I have heard, even though the cast, apart from the two major players, remains very much the same — apparently, the motto for the movie must have been «less theater, more realism», so that, even despite all the fads and trappings, the movie, and the movie soundtrack frequently produces a skin-crawling effect. The singing is in no way dominated by the kind of crap I personally hate about Broadway musicals: each performer makes his/her best to make every line come alive. When Pilate and Christ engage in their rapid-fire verbal duel in the intense ʽTrialʼ passage, they are talking, like two emotion-bound human beings — and, at the same time, singing on key. No matter how many times I listen to these performances, I still can't help feeling amazed at how startingly effective they pull off almost every line.
And yes, this time around the show looks definitely completed. The extra Annas/Caiaphas dialog on ʽThen We Are Decidedʼ, early on in the show, is a delicious dark taster of grim things to come. The fanfaric ʽHosannaʼ is extended with one extra verse ("sing out for yourselves, for you are blessed") which is actually very important — it is the only place throughout the whole opera where Jesus, for once, sounds happy, surrounded by his admirers. The Mary/Peter duet on ʽCould We Start Againʼ adds an original and interesting lyrical twist from Rice and is a great emotional «tender breather» in between all the rough post-Gethsemane stuff. The extra verse and bridge in ʽTrial Before Pilateʼ gives us more time — and suspense! — to prepare for the tension of ʽThe 39 Lashesʼ. At the same time, a few unnecessary bits have been trimmed — such as the ultra-long repetitive coda to ʽEverything's Alrightʼ — so that, in the end, the running length is just about the same as on the original, but the final album makes much better use of all that time.
In short, while I am always happy to have the Gillan/Head version around, it is the Neeley/Anderson version, I hope, that will stand the test of time as the ultimate JCS version. Granted, I should add here that I know almost nothing of the subsequent castings, which have been numerous and possibly successful; but, to be perfectly honest, I don't think I even want to know, because I honestly have no idea how anyone, anywhere, anyhow could ever improve on this interpretation. (I once caught a glimpse of some bits of the 2000 filmed version, with Glenn Carter as Jesus — just a glimpse, since I had to shut it off very quickly, fearing for the safety of my stomach: the pomp, pathos, overacting, and oversinging seemed to personify everything that I could ever abhor about these kinds of staging. Unsurprisingly, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber proclaimed this his personal favourite of all interpretations).
And yes, the movie deserves to be seen — we should probably just learn to disregard its dated aspects and concentrate on the performances, because visually, the actors fully match the emotions that we feel from their singing. And it actually does work as a movie about Jesus Christ — much better so, at least, than Mel Gibson's sadistic Christploitation flick; not to mention that Jewison faithfully preserves the ambiguity of the opera, and we never get to know «the truth». (We do see, symbolically, an empty cross at the end — yet we are never told how exactly it got empty, and, to be precise, Jesus was resurrected from the tomb, not from the cross). On the other hand, the «movie soundtrack» certainly needs no visuals to be appreciated as a great, thoroughly inspired and magnificently arranged and recorded piece of work. Thumbs up a-plenty.
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