Gone to the Movies: “Superstar”


I debated a little with myself about posting this one, mostly because I am not a Christian; I’m not entirely sure this is my territory to cover.  The message of Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t quite separate from more traditionally religious or conservative interpretations of both Christianity and Jesus, but there is a decidedly liberal bent to how Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber portrayed Jesus, Judas, and the rest in their musical.  Most importantly for me, though, is the fact that you don’t have to be a believer to take part in the discussion this musical and movie bring up.

Let’s start with the music.  Although many churches now incorporate Rock/Pop music into their services, back in 1970, turning the last weeks of Jesus’ life into a “Rock Opera” was tantamount to heresy.  I think it was a brilliant move on Weber and Rice’s part; the music helps make Christianity and the spiritual questions raised by the story accessible to younger people who were often alienated from the staid formality of religion.  The musical is about a conflict between Jesus and Judas over the direction of Jesus’ ministry, which ultimately leads to Judas’ betrayal, and both their deaths.  Judas is portrayed sympathetically, as a man concerned that Jesus has become more important than the message.

It’s not an unusual viewpoint.  Nikos Kazantsakis used a similar perspective in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ (a beautifully written book with lyrical prose, just in case anyone is interested).  In the novel, Jesus had planned everything leading up to the Crucifixion, including Judas’ betrayal, because he knew that’s what had to happen; Judas was the sympathetic best friend trying to talk Jesus out of it for much of the book.  The problem with Judas being a sympathetic character is that it removes him as a villain from the story, something many conservative Christians don’t approve of.  It introduces and element of ambiguity to the traditional narrative: “Did you mean to die like that?  Was it a mistake, or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”  If Judas wasn’t evil, if he was in some sense doing exactly what Jesus wanted him to do, then is Jesus always purely good?

I like this version.  I think it makes Jesus even more supernatural, and more spiritual.  If he knew what he was doing, what would happen if things continued down this path, that makes his sacrifice even greater in my book.  It also means that he understood what he was giving up–the chance at a long and happy life, a family, a comfortable living as a carpenter.  And Judas is redeemed.  He might have felt overwhelming guilt at giving up his friend and savior for thirty pieces of silver, but he was doing what he had to do, what Jesus required him to do.  That makes his love for the man even greater.

This doesn’t even touch on the brilliance of casting a black man as Judas in the film.  Carl Anderson was exciting and charismatic, and he belted out “Superstar” like a Baptist preacher.  And his very presence raised a whole host of questions about race that never get fully resolved by the musical (largely because these questions still haven’t been resolved over forty years later).  “Superstar” is the climactic song in the musical, summing up the one question everyone (sometimes literally) danced around throughout the entire film: “Jesus Christ, superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”

That question can only be answered with, or without, faith.  Or more accurately, faith in one answer or the other.  But while “Superstar” the climactic song, it is not the final scene.  That’s reserved for a shot of everyone leaving the scene of the crucifixion, then, in modern street clothes, climbing back on the bus that will presumably take them back to the modern world.  Of course, only one cast member is missing.

It’s one of the most affecting final scenes I’ve ever watched.  It leaves the final question of faith entirely up to the viewer, but also makes it clear that this is something enduring and eternal.  Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t convert me to a believer, but it does help me understand belief.

6 thoughts on “Gone to the Movies: “Superstar”

    • JCS is one of the few musicals I’ll watch when it’s on TV. It really was kind of revolutionary for it’s time. The actor who played Jesus in the movie, to the best of my knowledge, still tours in productions of JCS. I saw him on stage in Long Beach some years ago. I think he’s been playing Jesus for so long, he probably thinks he is Jesus by now.

  1. Mary,
    I had never actually seen this song performed and haven’t listened to it in years. I didn’t have a context for understanding it when it was rehearsed as part of a school choir song, in the late 70’s. Imagine that, if you can, lol.

    Anyway, I remember thinking that this song was a denial of Jesus and a rebellion against God. For a while, in my misspent youth (grins), I embraced that kind of attitude. There are many questions that Evangelical Christianity fails to address, one of which is exactly the point about Judas that you brought up.

    My biggest question, I guess in my meanderings as an agnostic, to a believer, to a seeker, back to a believer, and all points in between, is this: How can a loving God, knowing what choices individual human beings will make and what they will encounter, condemn them to eternal torture, for merely being born who they are into the circumstances that shape who they become and making the choices they make – horrific or saintly? If there are no accidents, God is in control, and everything that happens, happens for a purpose and a reason, then how do we call human beings evil for living out the parts they unknowingly are destined to play by the exercise of their so-called free will?

    That is partly the question I hear in this phrase: “Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or Did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?”

    I think the most profound question is: Do you think you’re what they say you are?

    I’m pretty sure my beliefs about Jesus, salvation, redemption, and pretty much the whole issue of the inviolability of the Bible would make me a heretic in most Christian circles. I suspect that Jesus is exactly who many say he is, just not in the way they believe it – if that makes any sense.

    As for the sympathetic character of Judas, the bare bones story in the bible doesn’t paint him as evil, that is interpretation of religious tradition. Many versions identify Judas as the one who betrayed Jesus. The fact is, each and every disciple wound up betraying him before his death. Judas sold him out for the 30 pieces of silver, never truly explaining why. Peter, essentially the one who is considered to be the found of The Church that became Catholicism and Christianity both (Yeah, I don’t understand why they are considered completely different religions by evangelicals,but they are. I mean technically, I understand, but really it doesn’t make sense), denied knowing Jesus. The rest of the disciples hid themselves and avoided having themselves identified as known associates. The bible does tell us that Judas repented, was remorseful, and so consumed with a sense of guilt he hung himself, after attempting to give up the money. That makes him a pretty sympathetic character without any embellishments or suppositions as to what his character, nature, and motivations really were.

    The questions the beginning part of the song bring into being regarding why Jesus appeared when he did and whether or not he was in control and knew what was going to happen, are answered in biblical texts. Jesus spoke to his disciples telling them of things that must come to happen and that it would mean his physical death.

    Anyway, this probaby should have been an independent blog post itself.

    Thanks for inviting me to join you on this one.


    • This is why I like you. You give a wonderful, thoughtful response that, yeah, maybe could’ve been it’s own post, but that’s neither here nor there. 🙂

      Actually, I knew that the Bible itself was pretty neutral on Judas and his betrayal, but so many Christians have decided that his actions were evil that that’s become the prevailing image. (And why Judas was evil, while the other disciples’ betrayals weren’t is actually kind of confusing. Maybe because of the money.) I’m surprised you’d never seen this before, since we are both women of a certain age. I was a drama geeks in school, so I couldn’t escape things like this, although I’d seen JCS before then. While there’s an anger to this song, I also think it’s genuinely open to the idea of salvation.

      Your comment also reminded me of a student in a class I was working with. She seemed shocked when I pointed out that Catholics were Christians. She thought it was some other religion that worshipped anyone and everyone except Jesus. I pointed out that it was one of the original Christian churches in the world, and suggested she look some things up. It seems unbelievable to me that some more evangelical and fundamentalist followers don’t know this.

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