Note: Many of these films have high ratings and deal with controversial subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised for both this review and the movies in question.
#4 Jesus Christ Superstar
“Superstar” started as a rock opera, opening on Broadway in 1971. It’s creators were Andrew Lloyd Webber (of Phantom of the Opera fame) and Tim Rice (If you’ve ever seen a Disney animated film- you have heard his lyrics). Just two years later the musical was made into a film which was directed by Norman Jewison (who also directed the film adaptation of “Fiddler on the Roof”). The story is based (and when I say based, I mean loosely and mostly erroneously interpreted) on the last days of Jesus as recorded in the Bible.
Basically, they seem to have taken a traditional Passion Play and turned it into a hippie rock ballad.
Are you confused yet?
When I first watched the movie, honestly I was horrified. They treat the subject matter, and Jesus with such disrespect that it left a sour taste in my mouth.
Jesus is portrayed as a man- not the Son of Man- not the Son of God, just a man who has got it into his head that he’s something special. The disciples get drunk at the last supper, it’s insinuated that Mary Magdaleine and Jesus have some romance going on, and Judas is actually treated like the protagonist because he is the only one who questions Jesus’s deluded ideas about being the Messiah.
You are probably wondering why on earth I have placed it on this list.
I’m going to take a moment and explain. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is not a prime example of a good “Christian Movie”. However, I decided to put it on this list, for two reasons.
1: I actually really like certain aspects of this film. (Which I will explain)
2: I want to address the fact that there are movies out there that really really offend me as a Christian, and I want to discuss how Christians might deal with such films.
My dad was the one who introduced me to this 70’s weirdness, and I was definitely weirded out and offended by the content- so I asked him about it.
He told me he heard the music first- disconnected from the visuals of the movie- and not only liked the tunes (cause’ boy, they are unbelievably catchy) but heard a different story based on the music. Dad pointed out a few songs and said “If Peter sang these, it would be so powerful.”
I thought about what my dad had said, and decided to watch “Superstar” again, this time listening for a different story.
I got more than I thought I would.
In my opinion “Jesus Christ Superstar” has the elements of three separate stories, and like one of those “Choose your own Ending” books, what you get out of it really depends on you, and how you choose to see it.
From my first viewing I got the “Let’s bash Jesus and horrify Christians” story.
My guess is that this is what most Christians see. It offends us because it turns people and ideals that are precious to us into drunken morons and deluded, wimpy martyrs. It ends with the crucifixion- never even hints at resurrection, and not so subtly suggests that Christ, and those who follow him have “Too Much Heaven on their Minds” and are oblivious to reality.
Stay with me here...
On viewing number two, I got more than one story, which I will separate into:
“What Superstar Could Have Been”
Jesus Christ Superstar could have been the coolest Passion Play ever! Oddly enough, every time I see one at my local church I always find myself thinking, “If they’d only added songs from Jesus Christ Superstar...”
The flick is bold and unique. This is 70‘s style through and through. It’s set in ancient middle east, but the Roman guards wear German helmets and purple tank tops, merchants at the Temple sell everything from chickens to semiautomatic rifles, and the Saducees chase Judas down in a tank. How many times do you get to see tanks in a movie about the Bible? Yeah it’s weird, but I think it’s kinda cool too. It’s like watching a steampunk version of Pride and Prejudice.
Remember my rant about the portrayal of Jesus in film? How I’d rather explore the people surrounding our Savior and their reactions to the Devine?
This is where “Superstar” is genius. It delves into the people around Jesus. It lets us into their world- and this is a world I understand.
We hear how the Pharisees and Saducees don’t like Jesus- not because they are evil and want him killed, but because his actions might bring negative attention from the Romans. Judas sees this as well and wants Jesus to tone it down in his song “Heaven on their Minds”. Political unrest, and people worried about their own skins? I can totally relate to that!
Personally, I would like to see Superstar remade with Peter as the protagonist.
In the real version, he has little to no screen time, and basically comes off as a coward when he denies Jesus. Give him some key songs like “Heaven on their Minds” and “Gesemene” and suddenly we have a deeply compelling character who loves Jesus, but has a difficult time understanding goals and ideals that don’t match up with his earthly expectations.
This is the story my Dad saw. This is what Jesus Christ Superstar could have been. And it would’ve been awesome! Basically a power packed Fiddler on the Roof-type epic with rock. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
Finally, as I listened to the songs- the last one, “Superstar”, stood out to me. In it the ghost of Judas asks Jesus why He did what He did. On a theological base, it was difficult to get past the fact Judas appears to be in Heaven, singing with the angels... However, the lyrics sparked yet another impression of this strange musical film.
“The Writers Question God”
As I have mentioned before, the end of Superstar is pretty much a downer. No hope in the resurrection, and we get a song that asks Jesus “Why did you do that? What was the Point?”
I get the idea that the producers of this piece were very confused about Jesus and this whole Christian thing. They seem pretty bitter- and irreverent, but at the same time, they ask a lot of deep questions.
Many of those questions, I have struggled with myself. So on that level, I relate- not necessarily to the characters in the film, but the people behind the scenes. I have sung my own versions of these songs, asking God, “Why are you doing this? I don’t understand!”
Here’s my point: asking questions is good. Struggling is good. If Jesus is who He said He is- then I believe it is right and fair to ask Him the tough questions. He should be big enough to handle them.
So I respect the creators of Superstar in that sense. They don’t placidly decide to follow Jesus for no good reason.
At the same time, I believe that when you ask those hard questions, you should be prepared for some hard answers.
I would like to believe that the people involved in Superstar didn’t just stop there. We will never know what their relationship with God was like back in the 70’s, or now in the 2000’s, but I can honestly say that their struggle has impacted me. I’m glad I’m not the only one looking for answers.
So this is quite the mixed bag. On one hand, “Superstar” has a ton of potential. But that’s all- the execution falls flat on it’s face when it comes to theology and historical accuracy.
Obviously it is a broken piece of art created by broken people.
So, should you watch “Jesus Christ Superstar”?
This review is not necessarily intended to recommend it. While I do want to acknowledge that it has some very cool aspects, my main purpose for writing about it is to simply bring it to your attention.
The fact is, there have always been movies, books, and other works of art that- intentionally or not- put Jesus and Christianity down. Either they misrepresent important facts, or they openly mock God’s Word. At first brush, we can be so hurt by the faulty representations onscreen that we can’t see the hurt behind the screen. When those of us who are Christians are faced with those movies, I think we need to react very carefully. We need to remember that the Bible is the Truth, and no movie can ever topple that.
If we do decide to watch a film that rubs our Christianity the wrong way, I think we should listen to the questions the filmmakers might be asking. Then if we ever meet someone who has the same questions, we can answer them with the Truth.
Plus, we might pick up some cool ideas- like putting a couple rock songs in a Passion Play.
(Note: Next week I will be posting about a movie I definitely recommend watching!)