The Greatest Tory Ever Sold

I also watched JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Easter. Doesn’t that title need some punctuation? I mean, if we don’t specify that it should read JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR (which would look good on a business card) then the filmgoer is dangerously free to imagine it as JESUS CHRIST! SUPERSTAR? (an astonished reaction to Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll biopic).

Whatever. Studios are apparently superstitiously averse to punctuating their titles.

This being early Lloyd-Webber, the tunes are actually there. Billy Wilder, speaking of the Sunset Blvd musical, predicted it might have one or two good songs (I think one of them is a self-plagiarism from ALW’s score for GUMSHOE). Most of these numbers are toe-tappers, though the bad guy songs are the ones that escape bathos and make a virtue of their vulgarity. Tim Rice’s lyrics do resort to rhyming couplets and one-syllable words a hell of a lot of the time, except where he rhymes “messiah” and “fire,” which ought to be a crucifying offence.

I guess director Norman Jewison is considered tragically unhip, but I consider him essentially benign, and he did give us Hal Ashby. And here he’s complemented by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, in shooting on 65mm, and editor Antony Gibbs, so we have the man who shot THE LADYKILLERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and the man who cut TOM JONES and PERFORMANCE. The shooting and cutting are terrific — and we should leave Jewison out of our appreciation of that. I guess the nouvelle vague-isms were maybe old hat by 1973, but this was never a really hip property anyway.

I recall reading about this one in a Medved Bros book — they really hated it, something I now think is more to do with their religious feelings than their film-critical faculties (which are null). They found Ted Neeley too hysterical — true, but Ted is fighting the tendency of Jesus to be boring onscreen — he doesn’t win the battle but his vocal histrionics keep him semi-watchable — ditto Carl Anderson as Judas — who moves well, his gestures midway between pantomime and dance. The Medvedi reserved special ire for Barry Dennen as Pilate, who is certainly very hissy indeed. And hissable. But somehow makes the character a serviceable embodiment of every management-class person craving the quiet life and refusing to take a stand. I’m always pleased when Dennen turns up in anything — as the desperate chemical plant scientist in SUPERMAN III, for instance.

This is one of the more incoherent renditions of the Gospels — I can’t work out why the people of Jerusalem turn against Christ — I suppose it’s as a result of him throwing the moneylenders out of the temple, but it’s not clear, really. It ought to have been possible to write this.

Despite the surname, Norman Jewison isn’t Jewish, something he pointed out, an honest man, when offered FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. The studio head said that this was GOOD, he felt a gentile could make the story universal. At which point maybe Jewison should have objected to being given a Jewish project on the basis of his not being Jewish.

Ted Neely, like most screen Jesuses, is super-Aryan (and from Texas), though the movie has a nice racial mix elsewhere, and avoids making Judas the most Jewish one (see the Eric Idle & John Cleese Michelangelo sketch). It does, however, strike me as quite a right-wing — the Thatcherite Rice and Lloyd-Webber do include Jesus and Judas’ argument about spending money on luxuries instead of charity, which most adaptations leave out. Not having seen this film since I was a kid, it hadn’t struck me before that the adaptors want to side with Jesus’ “There will be poor always, pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got.” It seems absurd that the authors intended the speaker to sound reasonable or virtuous. I always found Judas the more sympathetic character. And not just because I’m Scottish and thirty pieces of silver sounds like quite a lot.

The writers and Jewison also treat the healing of the sick as a zombie movie — the only time I’ve seen this done. Poor Jesus, persecuted by all these dirty poor people who want something from him!

I think Jewison was going for a Ken Russell vibe but can’t quite get there — he was, apparently, very concerned with being tasteful, which is a fool’s errand when dealing with tacky material like this (a Lloyd-Webber musical, the Holy Bible). He can’t quite attain the shade of ultraviolet required.

Yvonne Blake did the costumes for this and Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS the same year, it seems. The film’s Big Idea, that this is a production put on by a busload of hippies, works well, and the mix of am-dram stylisation and modern props is fun. The s&m pharisees are good value. Not sure how the graphic whipping — mild by Mel Gibson standards, of course — is supposed to work if this is a theatrical performance. Not quite consistent. Plus, where’s the audience?

And the jet fighters which roar off after Judas sells out evidently continued their patrol of the Holy Land — you can hear them, courtesy of sound designer Skip Lievsay, in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST when Willem Dafoe wills himself back onto the cross at the end.

11 Responses to “The Greatest Tory Ever Sold”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Anthony Gibbs was Producion Designer on “Performance.” Frank Mazzola edited it.

  2. Will Pfeifer Says:

    I find it fascinating that Peter was played by Paul Thomas, the star of hundreds (thousands?) of adult films.

  3. The weird “Jesus People” era that produced Godspell and JC Superstar was like a delivery system out of the 60s, carting hippies into Reagan’s America. So any proto-Thatcherism seen here is only too apt.

  4. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a “sermon” on the “poor are always with you” incident. He recalled mean-spirited relations tossing it off with the implication God wants us not to bother about them. Vonnegut’s analysis, as I recall: Jesus, knowing his fate, allows himself the small mortal pleasure of a foot massage. His words to Judas are more to the message of, “I’m about to die; you folks will have lifetimes to do as I taught you. The need will never go away.”

    Over the years I’ve seen several community and semi-pro productions. The one constant is that Herod’s Song is always a showstopper, a pretend-ironic reversion to old-fashion musical comedy flash to appease audiences suffering through Art and Piety. In recent years “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor ™ Dreamcoat” has become the more popular show, precisely because there’s no need for ostentatious reverence.

    Recently found a DVD release of “Godspell”, the almost Disneyesque movie of another Christ the Hippie musical. The show and the movie are light and playful: A modern-day Jesus summons a random troupe to clown through various parables, then zips through the cruxifixction to an upbeat closing number. It’s on a double disc with the musical version of “Lost Horizon”.

  5. Simon Kane Says:

    I’d avoided this until my thirties, with no idea of what I’d been missing. I love the messiness. I love that Judas seems to care more than Jesus. I hate Rice’s lyrics.
    I also love Vonnegeut’s interpretation of “Render unto Caesar…” as “Ignore Caesar, he’s no idea what’s really going on…”
    And Neeley’s return to Gethsemane after the death of Carl Andersen is jaw-dropping:

  6. Saw this around the age of 4 but only have dim memories of the zombie bit, which soon became conflated with Valley of the Lepers in Ben Hur. Tim Rice is a generator of stodgy, reliable crap and probably shouldn’t have accepted money for lyrics of this standard, but there you go.

  7. Performance has four editors – Antony Gibbs was on it in the first sessions, when Roeg was also there, then Mazzola cut with Cammell alone to compress the opening sections and get Mick in sooner. Roeg, at the time, disapproved of this cut — he was off on other projects (Walkabout?) while it was being prepared. Mazzola became a regular Cammell collaborator, Gibbs stuck with Roeg.

    But Christopher Gibbs is credited as design consultant on Turner’s house.

    Porno Peter is also a prolific director of smut films: an auteur! The only cast member with a really substantial film career…

    One good thing about the reactionaru Jesus-freak musicals is they produced The Rocky Horror Show as a counter-counter-reaction.

    Vonnegut’s reading is nicer, but a stretch when we consider that pretty much everything Jesus is quoted as saying is advice on how to be/behave. No doubt he said other things, like “What time is it?” or “I keep thinking it’s Tuesday” but those didn’t get recorded.

    Yes, the Gethsemene stuff is some of the best. Though Christ’s change of mind about being crucified… again, quite unmotivated by anything we see or hear.

    Tim Rice also wrote the lines “Take me to a zoo that has chimpanzees / Tell me on a Sunday, please” which always struck me as preposterous.

  8. Tell Me on a Sunday was actually perpetrated by Don Black (only know this from googling the lyrics just now). Apparently he got the job since ALW was put out with Rice for screwing Elaine Page.

  9. Ha!

    Ken Russell was all set to direct a film of Evita in the eighties, but he considered Elaine Page impossible casting for a movie and the thing withered on the vine as neither side was willing to back down. When Page had aged out of the picture, Madonna then entered it, along with Alan Parker, Jimmy Nail, and a lot of mucus-coloured cinematography.

  10. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Jesus Christ Superstar and Webber’s stuff in general feel like vulgar and empty post-modernism. They basically take avant-garde conceits and ideas, borrowed from subcultures and defuse all the bombs those premises ought to have and make it mass culture pap. The concept of the Christ-figure as mass media spectacle and so on feels like it should be provocative and shocking, and instead it’s just nothing. Spectacle and weak spectacle over anything tangible and meaningful.

  11. Yes, the title does sort of promise some kind of grand metaphor, Jesus seen as a pop star, enjoying an initial burst of fame, then rejected by the fashionable mob, then achieving some kind of immortality. But the movie doesn’t deliver much of that, perhaps because the framing of the action as some kind of kibbutz-hippy play blurs things, but also because nobody seems to have had the nerve to go through with it.

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