3. THE FIRST POP IDOL? Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Norman Jewison
A drastic shift in register from most films that translate biblical drama into cinematography. It is no wonder that Jesus Christ Superstar began as an album in 1970 and a musical the following year. The film came out in 1973 and its look and feel are strongly tied to that time. Its aim is not to portray a realistic version but to musically recreate (through pop-rock and clearly modern dance and dress styles) some situations from Christ’s life. In Pasolini’s piece, it is clear that music played a seminal role, concentrating the spiritual energy in dialogue interspersed with silence, but here its meaning is the complete opposite. The title tries to be provocative, but in fact it is totally coherent (even moderate, almost) taking into account how the contents are handled.
The issue the film tackles remains the same (the life and miracles of Jesus Christ) but from a different perspective, more brazenly pop, which hopes to be timeless, without worrying about the differences in context or characterisation. Christ is the first great idol of the masses, implicating personally historical figures that have been transcendental above all due to their own transcendence. In terms of a not fully requited love story with Mary Magdalene, or through an intimate hostility with Judas, who shares centre stage in the film despite being shown as unethical from the very beginning. Likewise, there are other supporting characters that foster or amplify the incomprehension of his figure and his spiritual message: a memorably pragmatic Pontius Pilate and a completely frenzied King Herodes in his musical piece, when the masses are calling for the crucifixion of the so-called “King of Jews”.
Like any pop phenomenon, the post-romantic perspective of the artist (misunderstood and generous in their endless creativity) is highly fictional. The cliché of being before one’s time (that of geniuses who can only be understood after some time and from a different perspective) is updated in Jesus Christ Superstar. It puts on no airs of being theological but does use a pattern that vaguely coincides. Christ won’t be truly recognised until after his death and this is because joining the spirituality requires the sacrifice of the son of God, so that man may in turn be saved, beyond this time. However, while he is alive, this Jesus Christ is as attractive as any pop star of the 1970s and 80s. The landscapes, predictably desert-like, become the perfect place to shoot music videos, moments sung by the main characters who, as in so many productions in this genre, convey the heart of the matter in a more direct, intense and emotional manner.
The musical pieces reflect, in condensed form, the most intimate of desires and intentions, which like any pop song can be universally extrapolated to any life. The film, which starts with a tone of meta-fiction (observing how the show is being set up and the depiction of the characters, with the heavenly introduction of the absolute main character), features some dramatic moments but with a kitsch after-taste that unavoidably impregnates everything. We can’t say, in this sense, that it has aged well, nor that it would be easily enjoyed by all audiences. It is, however, an archaeological perspective, taking into account the signs of the time it represents. The portrayal of a long-haired, loving Jesus Christ (an anti-establishment radical in the 1970s, towards the end of the hippie movement) helps spread his example, becoming part of the system. Parallel to the triumph of Christianity, originally a minority sect, the character in the rock opera is understood as an idol of the masses. His particular revolution, with the new concept of loving your fellow man, becomes a global hit.