They’ll Still Talk About Monday Movies When We’ve Died
Forget, it’s over. Wednesday left us bellies empty an throats parched. Thursday passed without danger of spoilage. And Friday’s Father Confessor walked straight out the booth.
Who’s with me?
Jesus Christ Superstar — I’ve been taking a musical improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Not to improvise musically on an instrument, but to improvise a piece of musical theater. The instructor has had us immerse ourselves in a different composer each week, and last week was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s.
My low opinion of Sir Andrew was mostly received wisdom. I’d danced in the aisles to Cats as an eight-year-old, but sniffed at Phantom when it came out, by virtue of little more than membership in Team Les Miz. After that, I somehow decided he was empty spectacle and musical treacle. It’s a defensible opinion, especially for a teenager who ought to be off rejecting one thing or another, but for me it wasn’t one steeped in understanding.
(I still suspect that the dreadful liturgical themes composed and introduced by the cantor at my in-laws’ synagogue are the poisonous offspring of the show music of the 80’s and 90’s. But Les Miz is as guilty there as Sir Andrew.)
Jesus Christ Superstar is a great musical, and a very good movie. As much as I’ve absorbed a goodly chunk of the Gospels by virtue of being a reasonably literate English-speaker, I’d never read or watched a whole narrative account of them before I sat down with JCS. Guys, did you know that the Passion is a really moving story? There’s betrayal and love, menacing authority figures and even a bit of sex and violence. Let me know if you want to give me posting privs on AUFS, or if you just want to sit with that for a bit. Lloyd Webber, with lyricist Tim Rice, builds the emotional weight of the show around Judas’s dilemma. Distressed that Jesus has forgotten about the poor, he worries that his leader’s overzealous following will bring down the heavy hand of the imperial Romans.
Playing Judas is Carl Anderson, whose own crown of thorns sinks heavier into his brow beginning in frame one. His body wears out progressively; by the time he makes his deal with head rabbi Caiaphas, a severe bass in a funny hat, he can hardly keep himself off the stone arches. (He won a Golden Globe for his trouble.) Ted Neely’s Jesus has a bit more of the heavenly hundred-yard gaze, but his own doubts surface dramatically among the lepers, when the neediest of the wretched surround him in a carnivorous Busby Berkeley wheel of grasping hands.
Director Norman Jewison took the play out of its audacious stripped-down scaffolding staging and filmed it in the Middle East, primarily at the Negev ruins of Avdat. The different levels of caves and ruins are exploited to good effect to balance filmic style against the theatricality of musical staging. The dancing is ecstatic, apostles as Maenads, and the excitement comes through even relatively straightforward editing, a proleptic argument against the frenetic, choppy “intensified continuity” of a Nine or Chicago. Jewison uses a few bold visual anachronisms to good effect: Judas is almost run down by a pair of (presumably Roman) tanks, and fighter jets scream overhead. (For a great example of this, watch Alex Cox’s Walker, in which a 19th-century freebooter in Nicaragua eventually finds his warground strewn with Coke cans and Zippo lighters.)
What did you see? Stick around, the Paradise Theater hasn’t shown its last matinee yet.
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