Jesus Christ Superstar: The Soundtrack

“God, thy will is hard,
But you hold every card
I will drink your cup of poison
Nail me to your cross and break me,
Bleed me, beat me,
Kill me
Take me, now!
Before I change my mind”

 

 

So unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months or so you must be aware of the latest uproar that a MOVIE has caused among the religiously inclined of the world. I speak obviously of The Da Vinci Code, a rather wishy washy adaptation of a rather twitty novel featuring Tom Hanks as a reluctant hero sporting a crisis of faith and an unfortunate hairstyle. Of course amidst the brouhaha it’s easy to forget that the material is hardly untrodden territory, it’s been done before: gorier in The Passion of the Christ, funnier in Dogma, and just plain infinitely better in The Last Temptation of Christ. Then we have the strange case of director Norman Jewison’s cinematic adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice concept album/stage phenom, Jesus Christ Superstar, which in my humble opinion packs an emotional wallop far more potent than Mel Gibson’s blood-fest. And all the ‘radical’ hysteria-inducing elements that were explored in these more recent pretenders are in evidence here. The notion of Christ as a man at conflict with his Divine destiny? Check. The controversial relationship with Mary Magdalene? Check. A decidedly sympathetic Judas Iscariot? Check.

 

It’s all there.

 

And all set to what has to be Webber and Rice’s greatest, most lyrical collaborative musical effort. (Of course some would argue that it’s the former’s only effort of any worth but that’s a whole other kettle of fish that shall remain firmly lidded). The term ‘rock opera’ might sound like an egregious oxymoron but to those with an affinity for the free-wheeling musical (and other) experimentations of the hippie era, it’s a familiar and favoured title, laid claim to by the likes of Hair, The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. JCS starts with the ‘running theme’ element of the rock opera/concept album and takes it one very important and clever step further by pairing it with a story as universally resonant as the Passion of Jesus Christ. What we end up with is more than a mere musical; it is a heady, decadently spiritual experience.

 

He is dangerous”

 

Starting life as an ultra-successful double album featuring Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan in the role of Jesus, JCS went onto a poorly received Broadway production, but exploded onto the international scene as a theatrical and cultural phenomenon that mushroomed in the even the unlikeliest of locations (Japan, anyone?). Eventually, during the filming of Fiddler on the Roof, actor/singer Barry Dennen (who played Pontius Pilate on the concept album and would go on to do the same in the film) gave the album to the film’s director Norman Jewison to hear, with the suggestion that he make a film out of it. Upon hearing it, a thoroughly impressed Jewison enthusiastically agreed to do the project.

Filmed entirely on location in the Middle East, primarily in Israel at the magnificent ruins of Avdat, the action closely follows the canonical gospels’ accounts of the last week in Jesus’ life, with a significant side-step into the political and personal conflict between Judas and Jesus that largely forms the core of the film. Commencing with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and culminating with the Crucifixion (though any depiction of the Resurrection is notably missing), the settings, the costumes, the props, the language of the lyrics and of course the music are nevertheless unmistakably twentieth century-modern. With ironic, anachronistic allusions to modern life scattered throughout the political depiction of the events, Jewison manages to capture the universality and timelessness of the story.

The talent on tap here is top-notch. Broadway JCS understudy Ted Neeley’s now-delicate-now-searing low-B-flat-to-high-E tenor replaces Ian Gillan in the title role (the latter decided to go on tour with his band instead). The aforementioned Barry Dennen has perhaps less screen time than the other lead performers but he makes a dynamic Pilate, infusing his cinematic and vocal performance with a remarkable blend of sneering arrogance and melancholic introspection. Bob Bingham’s rich baritone brings to life the character of the priest Caiaphas, and Yvonne Elliman (of Saturday Night Fever’s ‘If I Can’t Have You’ fame), with her sweetly soulful voice, makes a more than memorable Mary Magdalene.

But, it has to be said, the star of the show is unquestionably the absolutely electrifying Carl Anderson (Judas). With a raspy, resonant vocal quality reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and the Temptations’ David Ruffin, Anderson is a soul n’ funk powerhouse who sets afire the hard-edged rock solos and at the same time is able to effortlessly come down to gentle, murmuring tones for the more mellow, reflective passages. This gift is immediately in evidence in his very first number ‘Heaven On Their Minds’, a rumination on what Judas sees as Christ’s inability to control his followers. Starting with a soft verse, the score is suddenly shaken with a piercing, impossibly tuneful scream of “Jeeeeesus!” The pattern of soft and steely repeats itself throughout the song, and is skillfully employed as Judas’ motif, establishing him as a conflicted, tragic figure who must betray his messiah. Note if you will the incredible contrast between a fevered number like ‘Damned For All Time’ in which Anderson is like a vocal locomotive hurtling at breakneck speed with its brakes removed, and his broken, plaintive reprise of the ballad ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ in which his voice hits the tenderest of notes.

“Think while you still have me,

Move while you still see me,

You’ll be lost

And you’ll be sorry

When I’m gone”

 

As with any musical epic, JCS has the solid opening overture that presages the score’s major numbers, and also showcases the instantly recognisable goose-bump-inducing six-note guitar riff that has been imitated many times over since. The piece has an eerie, haunting quality, taking off with a wailing guitar lick that burgeons with ominous intensity to a frantic mélange of sounds. Layer upon layer of anxious riffs and fragments blend with orchestral flourishes, hard rock’s biting tension, and electronic sound effects, until the rhythmic cacophony finally boils together into a ravishing celebration of the chorus to the title track, which is immediately cut short by faint wailing voices and discordant notes. Exhausting and exhilarating all at once.

 

Christ’s simmering frustration with his impatient followers finds a jazzy outlet in ‘What’s The Buzz’ in which Neeley’s smooth, supple vocals are accompanied by a funky Moog melody and the incessant and infectious chorus of “what’s the buzz/tell me what’s a-happenin’”. This upbeat tune segues into Judas’ disdainful view of Jesus’ tolerant, nay affectionate attitude towards Mary Magdalene in ‘Strange Thing, Mystifying’, and that in turn melts into the gentle, swaying air of ‘Everything’s Alright’ in which Mary and a women’s chorus try to soothe the messiah’s worries with song.

 

Point-counter-point also crops up as a regular lyrical motif, aptly demonstrated in the rollicking ‘Simon Zealotes’ with the marvellous Larry T. Marshall on vocals urging Jesus to seize power by leading a mob against Rome:

 

Christ you know I love you
Did you see I waved?
I believe in you and God
So tell me that I’m saved

Jesus, I am with you
Touch me, touch me Jesus
Jesus, I am on your side
Kiss me, kiss me Jesus

 

There must be over fifty thousand
Screaming love and more for you
Every one of fifty thousand
Would do whatever you ask him to
Keep them yelling their devotion
But add a touch of hate at Rome
You will rise to a greater power
We will win ourselves come home
You’ll get the power and the glory
For ever and ever and ever
You got the power and the glory
For ever and ever and ever
Amen! Amen!

 

But Tim Rice’s cryptic lyrics coupled with a sudden down-tempo at once undercut Zealotes’ hedonistic tone, as Jesus quietly laments:

 

Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand
Nor the Romans, nor the Jews
Nor Judas, nor the twelve
Nor the priests, nor the scribes
Nor doomed Jerusalem itself
Understand what power is
Understand what glory is
Understand at all
Understand at all
If you knew all that I knew
My poor Jerusalem
You’d see the truth
But you’d close your eyes
But you’d close your eyes
While you live
Your troubles are many
Poor Jerusalem
To conquer death
You only have to die
You only have to die

 

Indeed, Rice’s contribution to the power of the score cannot be emphasised enough for his is a supremely difficult task, combining contemporary slang and actual quotes from the gospels to not only imbue the songs with emotional power but also to keep them faithful enough to the source material. For instance, Christ’s famed matter-of-fact pronouncement of his impending betrayal at the hands of those closest to him is expressed thusly:

 

Peter will deny me in just a few hours
Three times will deny me,
And that’s not all I see.
One of you here dining,
One of my twelve chosen
Will leave to betray me

 

“One thing I’ll say for him, Jesus is cool”

 

Probably the most well-known breakout hit from the score is of course the ballad ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, which seeks to humanise not only Mary but also, through her words, the object of her reverence. “He’s just a man” she sings but herself sounds unconvinced. With simple orchestration consisting of flutes and strings, the song strikes a delicate balance between being a ‘love’ song and a hymn, in which the speaker grapples with the dilemma of trying to sort through her feelings for a man of God who in all probability cannot return her love. And even:

 

If he said he loved me

I’d be lost
I’d be frightened
I couldn’t cope
Just couldn’t cope
I’d turn my head
I’d back away
I wouldn’t want to know
He scares me so
I want him so
I love him so

 

“Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?”

 

Christ’s own fears about his fate are given voice in the astounding ‘Gethsemane’. A one-way conversation with God set to a driving rhythm on guitar, Neeley truly sings his heart out here, belting out the words of doubt and reluctant acceptance with scorching passion.

 

Judas’ spirit returns for the grand finale backed up by a soulful female chorus as they together belt out the title track ‘Superstar’. Designed as a showstopper to end all showstoppers, the tune more than does the job; one can just imagine the audience up on its feet and swaying like an old-time gospel chorus as Judas opines cheekily:

If you’d come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication

 

Admittedly, Jesus Christ Superstar deals more with classical values than with strictly modern ones, despite the electric guitars and rock riffs and all; some have called it classical motifs dressed up as rock statements. But whether you agree with its rock opera status or not, one thing is for sure, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a one-off masterpiece whose score and lyrics are woven together with seamless harmony.

What’s with all the fonts?? Beats me…

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One Response to “Jesus Christ Superstar: The Soundtrack”

  1. Verival Says:

    Thanks for your great analysis of one of my favorite pieces!!

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