Gone to the Movies: “Superstar”

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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.