These days there’s not much you can do about Easter if you’re over the age of 8. Unless you’re a full-on lunatic-type fundamentalist railing against the secularization of the holy day, or an equally annoying self-righteous atheist making unicorn analogies like you’re the first person to think that one up, you can’t really do anything to mark the holiday except ironically forward the pictures of children screaming in terror at adults wearing creepy Easter bunny costumes (and really—is there any other kind of adult-sized Easter bunny costume?) that always circulate this time of year. Unlike its siblings Christmas and Halloween, Easter hasn’t fared so well in transitioning to our increasingly irreligious age. No, unless you’re young enough to find the prospect of dyeing eggs and eating jelly beans to be the height of excitement, the season of Easter, for the majority of us, is an obligatory awkward extended-family brunch at best.
That’s why I was so pleased to get a surprise text last Sunday from my friend Joe, with these words, sans explanation: “My mind is clearer now.”
Breaking into a grin, I immediately began typing back the proper response, as it effortlessly emerged from deep within the well of childhood memory: “At last, all too well, I can see where we all soon will be.” We continued exchanging lyrics with increasing use of capital letters and multiple exclamation points, until finally he ended our textversation with this sentence: “It’s the week before Easter—time to put this back into heavy rotation.” Neither of us are religious people. But, by God, he was right.
Those are, of course, Judas’ eerie, haunted opening lines of the 1970 “rock opera”—originally a concept-album double LP, then a staged production in London and New York, and eventually a 1973 movie—Jesus Christ Superstar.
Always somewhat culturally marginal, even at the height of its original popularity, the strange countercultural take on the Synoptic Gospels known as Jesus Christ Superstar has gone in and out of acceptability since its release—at times considered cool, at others utterly beyond-the-pale lame—and grown increasingly forgotten by all but the most extreme theater nerds, which as far as I can tell are the only subcategory of the music-fandom population that has always worshipped it.
But the fact is that, despite what most rock music fans may think (either because they hate Broadway musicals, religion, or both), Jesus Christ Superstar is not a corny attempt at hippying up the Bible, like its vastly inferior, non-rock Broadway musical contemporary Godspell, nor is it an example of that lamest of rock genres, born-again fundamentalist Christian rock. What it is, on the contrary, is a truly great rock record, and a fantastic movie—one that deserves to be pulled off the shelf of pop-cultural history, dusted off, and listened to again. It’s the perfect thing to play this time of year. And it’s best played loud.
Growing up in suburban Chicagoland in the 1970s, I heard the album played around the house a lot by my father, who was the sort of Vietnam-era liberal Lutheran minister who not only played anti-war protest songs on his acoustic guitar, but played them in church. Like his Beatles and Dylan records, it inspired my lifelong love of rock music. He led discussions among his congregation after organizing study-group outings to see the film, and even had us singing the title song in my junior choir—I turned 5 years old in 1973—despite the fact that when it was originally recorded and performed it was banned by the BBC for being “sacrilegious,” and conservative Christian groups protested the stage show’s debut on Broadway and the release of the film.
Thus like many Gen Xers, both religious and non-, the American-release LPs became a part of my childhood. Featuring much-lauded performances by Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan as Jesus and Murray Head as Judas, the two record set came packaged in a cool-ass faux-leather-looking case, emblazoned with the iconic double-angel logo on the front in gold, and containing a 28-page booklet with the opera’s entire libretto by Tim Rice. Thus, a kid (i.e., me) could read along as he (i.e., I) sat on the carpet next to the stereo in the family living room, listening on headphones to the dramatic, strangely anxiety-driven music within (so unlike the feel-good, cheery tunes of the let’s-all-dress-up-like-mimes Godspell), feeling their (i.e., my) heart race at this early experience of what would come to be a lifelong love of the adrenaline-inducing power of electrically amplified rock—lost in sound.
The lyrics of that libretto’s climactic number, the titular “Superstar” (sung by none other than the ghost, descended from heaven and dressed as an angel, of the suicide Judas himself) begin with “Every time I look at you I don’t understand” and end with “Did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?” More than anything else, it was the lyrics of this song that captured and crystallized my own burgeoning questions about Christianity, even as an elementary school kid.
Because the fact is, people have been talking about the questions at the heart of the Jesus story for centuries—not because they’re dumb, but because they’re smart. My pastor dad got this—he’s an intelligent person and he understood that despite being a secular, political, and religiously skeptical take on the New Testament source material, this was a sophisticated look at the scholarly realities and theological contradictions inherent in the Jesus story. Mostly, it is an attempt to address not religious faith, but religious doubt.
As a modern, liberal minister, my dad was cool enough of a theologian to realize the value of some skepticism and doubt. But as a ’60s/’70s-zeitgeist dude, he was also cool enough of a guy to realize the value of some kickass rock ’n’ roll.
The film version does not have the same cast, but stars the gifted performers Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson in roles they seem to have been literally born to play. (Tarantino knows it—he gave Neeley a cameo in Django Unchained as, surprise surprise, a guy who gets shot.) The first time I saw the movie was when it aired on network TV sometime in the mid-’70s. Since my anti-consumerist parents didn’t buy a color TV until 1980, I must have seen it in black and white. But even as a kid watching a cheap, outdated TV set, I was freaked out by how surreal and unusual it is.
It opens with pans across the ruins of ancient temples, some of the walls of which have been partially re-completed with scaffolding, until a bus full of actors drives out to the middle of the Israeli desert to perform the film’s story. As they get into costume and unpack their props—machine guns for the Roman guards being the strangest to my young eyes—the opera’s eerie overture plays on the soundtrack, culminating in lowering the final huge prop from where it has been tied to the bus’s roof: the cross on which Jesus will eventually be executed.
Even as a very young boy I was able to pick up on the central strangeness of this version of the last week of Christ’s life—the fact that, unlike every other version I’d ever seen, there is no resurrection following Christ’s death. And at the end, as the actors get back on the bus and drive away, only one does not do so—Ted Neeley, as Christ.
Like most things I associated with church, as I grew older I lost interest in Jesus Christ Superstar but was re-introduced to it in junior high, when my seventh-grade homeroom teacher, Mr. Faulkner, showed us the entire film over several days of class on the then relatively new medium of videotape. One of the best teachers I ever had, Mr. Faulkner was a bearded, lanky ex-hippie (I assumed) who also taught us about antiheroes with King Kong and James Bond and put us through an incredibly fun epic three-day critical thinking exercise in which he insisted the world was flat and then dared us to argue him out of it.
He used Jesus Christ Superstar to teach us symbolism, storytelling technique, political maneuvering, and to point out the ways it singled out and deconstructed (I don’t think he used that word, but in retrospect, that’s what he meant) confusing and contradictory aspects of the Gospels in order to provoke the viewer to think.
I wonder what would happen if a public school teacher tried to do that today? I assume they would get in trouble with religious parents, on the one hand, for teaching a sacrilegious story, and with atheist parents, on the other, for teaching religion in school. Heedless of these potential controversies, our class was mostly just glad we got to spend a week listening to really great psychedelic rock. Mr. Faulkner understood his audience.
At the end of the movie, when I said, “But Jesus doesn’t rise from the dead!” Mr. Faulkner replied “Maybe he does, though?” and pointed out something I hadn’t seen. In the final shot, of the now-abandoned cross standing empty in the sunset, a figure can just barely be seen, silhouetted in the lens flare, walking alone.
In a word, the film is awesome. However wildly misunderstood (accused, for example, of being anti-Semitic because of the villainous Pharisee priests, the film was, in reality, directed by the same guy who made Fiddler On The Roof, Norman Jewison) and however dated stylistically (everybody’s dressed, to put it baldly, like hippies) it remains immensely powerful. The scene where the jeopardy of Roman-occupied Judea is conveyed by a line of tanks coming over the horizon line is still startling, Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene has the voice of an angel, and the climactic musical number is a showstopper by Carl Anderson. And the sequence where Neeley sings “Gethsemane” contains one minute and 20 seconds in a row that are not only a high point in the history of rock vocals but one of the most dramatic moments in any movie I know.
There’s a reason that vicious punk bands like Scratch Acid and Cows covered songs from JCS—they fucking rock, and hard. “The 39 Lashes” alone is one of the punkest things you’re likely to see in a major motion picture, and this was all from before punk. Yes, the music was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who would go on to create some of the most annoying (and un-rocking) Broadway hits of the ’80s, what can I tell you? Apparently the guy only had one masterpiece in him. But a masterpiece it is.
Perhaps aging Gen Xers like myself might have some nostalgic reasons for rediscovering this classic, but those of you who are millennials likely do not. That’s no excuse. Roll away the stone and bring this one back from the crypt, kids. Hallelujah, He is risen—He is risen indeed.