Robert Stigwood

Jesus Christ Superstar

1973

Universal Studios

Directed by Norman Jewison

Produced by Robert Stigwood

Screenplay by Melvyn Bragg

Based on the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

The movie begins with a bus driving across a huge, vast desert.  It stops and a large group of men and women get out.  They unload props and costumes and we get the point that they’re preparing to perform and/or rehearse a play of some sort.  Now given how the movie ends I have a couple of theories about this whole scenario.  One, this is a bunch of actors who by the end of their rehearsal/performance have gotten so deep and far into their roles that an unimaginable tragedy occurs.  Or that they are religious fanatics who are reenacting the story of Jesus Christ and deliberately sacrifice one of their own to have a proper end to the story.

Or it could just be a pretty entertaining musical we’re watching called JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

Calling it a musical isn’t exact, though. It’s a Rock Opera, a form of musical theater popular in the 70’s and 80’s.  “Tommy” “Hair” “Godspell” and “Pippin” are examples of this.  It’s called a Rock Opera because the score is rock music and there is no spoken dialog.  Everything is sung.  JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR remains even today the most controversial of the Rock Operas because of the subject matter: an exploration of the last days of Jesus Christ (Ted Neely) seen primarily through the eyes of Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson) Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Ellman) and Peter (Philip Toubus)

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First of all, I love the look of this movie as it was filmed in The Holy Land and among ruins in The Middle East.  It gives the movies a stark, arid atmosphere that I think works so that we can concentrate on the music and the performances and not be distracted by garish, glitzy sets.  We already know how the story ends.  What is important here is how it’s presented.

Every musical (or Rock Opera) succeeds or fails on its music and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has some pretty epic songs.  Most people know the song “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” as performed by the amazing Yvonne Ellman who also played Mary Magdalene in the Broadway production.  But to me there are songs just as good if not better.  My favorites are “The Last Supper” and the awesomely poignant “Could We Start Again, Please?” which is sung primarily by Mary and Peter as they beg Jesus for him to take everything back the way it was when things began long after it’s way to late for that.  “What’s The Buzz?” is such a favorite of mine that some of you who have conversed with me on the phone/Skype/IM know that oftentimes I’ll start the conversation with the song’s refrain; “What’s the buzz?  Tell me what’s a’happening?”  Josh Mostel (the son of Zero) has a showstopper “Try It And See” that is totally whacked out and just a lot of fun to watch and hear.  It’s a song you’ll want to hear more than once, trust me.  Judas also has a number called “Damned For All Time” that is amazing in the anguish and power Carl Anderson delivers.

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In fact, Carl Anderson as Judas walks off with the acting/singing honors in this one.  He gets to perform the very first song in the movie; “Heaven on Their Minds” which to me sets the tone for the entire relationship in the movie between Jesus and Judas.  And when he sings the title tune; “Jesus Christ Superstar” his energy is astounding to watch.  Ted Neely as Jesus is no Jeffrey Hunter but he can sing and he’s got such a haunting look in his eyes that you can’t take your eyes off him.  Yvonne Ellman besides her career on Broadway enjoyed a very good run with her disco hit; “If I Can’t Have You.” And she’s great as Mary Magdalene.

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In fact, the thing I really like about this movie is the exploration of the extraordinary relationship between Jesus and Judas which is one that has infinitely fascinated me since I was a boy in Sunday School.  There is a scene between Judas and Jesus where they dispute about Mary’s buying ointment to put on the feet and head of Jesus.  Mary sings “Everything’s Alright” while Jesus and Judas clasp hands and look deep into each other’s eyes.  In that scene there is a resolution and commitment to their shared destiny that is both affirming and terrifying.

And I’ll leave it up to you to determine what it means in the final scene when the actor who plays Judas is still alive when the actors shed their costumes and props and get back on the bus while we don’t see the actor who played Jesus at all.

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So should you see JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR?  I say yes.  As entertainment and as a cultural artifact, it is most definitely worth seeing.  My wife Patricia doesn’t like the movie because she feels that any movie dealing with Jesus Christ should depict The Resurrection and we don’t get that here.  This goes back to my opening interpretation of the movie.

But I digress.  JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is available for streaming on Netflix and I heartily endorse it purely as entertainment.  You want religious guidance and instruction? Go to the church or religious institution of your choice.

108 minutes

Rated G

Tommy

1975
Columbia Pictures

Directed by Ken Russell
Produced by Ken Russell and Robert Stigwood
Screenplay by Ken Russell and Pete Townsend

TOMMY is absolutely nuts. There’s no other way to describe this movie, which might best be seen as a cultural exercise if nothing else. After all, it’s nothing more than a bunch of MTV (before there was an MTV) videos strung together in a loose story based the classic rock opera album performed by The Who. Everything in the movie serves the overwhelming theme of organized religion gone wrong and Ken Russell sacrifices everything to beat us over the head with this theme relentlessly. However the movie does have Ann-Margaret masturbating with a pillow to orgasm in a sea of baked beans and any movie that has that scene in it can’t be all bad, can it?

TOMMY tells the story of a young British lad named Tommy Walker (Barry Winch) whose father (Robert Powell) is a decorated World War II bomber pilot who is lost during a mission and presumed dead. Tommy’s mother Nora (Ann-Margret) is starved for attention and while visiting Tommy at summer camp falls in lust with Frank Hobbs (Oliver Reed) one of the camp’s supervisors. Frank returns home with Tommy and Nora. It isn’t long before Frank and Nora are spending their days boozing it up and fornicating like crazy.  Not that that’s such a bad thing. Who wouldn’t want to spend all day fornicating and boozing it up with Ann-Margret?

Things start to go really wrong when Captain Walker returns home unexpectedly. Turns out he was shot down, held prisoner and it took him all this time to get back home. He interrupts Frank and Nora while they’re having boozy sex and in the following argument, Frank accidentally kills Captain Walker just as Tommy, awakened by the yelling of the adults walks in on them. Nora and Frank sit Tommy down and repeatedly sing to him; “It never happened. You didn’t see it, you didn’t hear it, and you’ll never say a word.” Tommy takes them literally: from that moment on he’s struck deaf, dumb and blind.

Tommy grows up to become Roger Daltrey while being sexually, psychologically and physically abused by Frank’s relatives, Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) and Cousin Kevin (Paul Nicholas).  Even Frank gets in on the fun by taking Tommy to The Acid Queen (Tina Turner) who attempts to bring Tommy out of his catatonia by means of sex and a metal sarcophagus studded with hypodermic needles.

Nora puts her trust in The Specialist (Jack Nicholson) to cure her son but it’s all to no avail as he just takes her money, flirts with her and doesn’t cure her son. And then one day Tommy wanders into a junkyard and finds a pinball machine. Which he plays with a supernatural skill that soon propels him into worldwide fame and fortune that climaxes in a showdown with The Pinball Wizard (Elton John) that snaps Tommy out of his catatonia. From then on he promotes a religion based on playing pinball while simulating being deaf, dumb and blind: (“Put in your earplugs, put on your shades….you know where to put the cork!”) Nora and Frank exploit the commercial side of Tommy, selling Tommy T-shirts, pinball playing kits, and even opening up an expensive resort where you can pay through the nose to play pinball like Tommy and find spiritual enlightenment. Eventually, the suckers realize they’re being suckered and they revolt in an apocalyptic orgy of murder and violence that changes Tommy’s fate forever.

I’m going to go on record as saying that I’m not really overwhelmed by the music of The Who or their impact on rock and roll. I remember seeing TOMMY in the theaters as I was in High School when the movie originally came out and the crowd I hung around with wanted to see the movie.  And I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years and most recently watched it twice on Turner Classic Movies all the way through. And I’m still not all that impressed.

It’s actually a pretty dull movie unless you happen to love Ann-Margret like I do. I can watch her in anything (“Viva Las Vegas” in which she co-starred with Elvis Presley is one of my Favorite All Time Movies) and she looks amazingly hot like no other woman can when she’s sweaty. This is the movie where she’s watching Tommy on television as he beats The Pinball Wizard and she hurls a bottle of champagne through the screen. The screen erupts in an explosion of soap bubbles that fills the room which then turns into baked beans and chocolate. Ann-Margret swims around in that mess and masturbates on top of an oversize penis-shaped pillow until she orgasms. You have to see it to believe it but I don’t think you’re gonna have much of a problem. I know I didn’t.

As for the music…quite frankly most of it I found it kinda bland. The movie is a rock opera that means that everything is sung and there’s no spoken dialog. But unlike say, “Jesus Christ, Superstar” most of the songs struck me as remarkably pretentious and boring and do nothing to further the story or the characters. However, the gorgeous Ann-Margaret is absolutely wonderful all throughout the movie. She not only can sing but she can act while she’s singing and that goes a long way. And amazingly enough both Oliver Reed and Jack Nicholson pull off their singing duties with professional respectability. They’re not singers by any stretch but they do a better job of it than you would think.

The main show piece of the movie for me was Elton John singing “Pinball Wizard” which he does was wearing these really goofy ten foot tall combat boots and sparkly glasses that look as if they were made especially for him at ‘Geeks R Us’.  Roger Daltrey makes the most of “See Me, Feel Me” “I’m Free” and “Listening To You” especially at the end of the movie where he survives the slaughter of the pinball camp and climbs to the top of a mountain in a blatantly symbolic act that had me rolling my eyes in exasperation.

So should you see TOMMY? Ah, it’s up to you. I suspect that if you’re a fan of The Who you own the multiple versions of the album and have seen the movie already so nothing I say will make a difference. If you’re a fan of Ann-Margaret it’s most definitely worth seeing as it’s a movie where she really has a chance to go nuts.   And I liked Oliver Reed in this one as well. But Oliver Reed is one of my favorite actors and I think he never got the respect he deserved. He starred in one of my favorite movies; “The Assassination Bureau” and he was outstanding as Athos in both “The Three Musketeers” and ‘The Four Musketeers” directed by Richard Lester. I think your best bet would be to wait for TOMMY to show up on Turner Classic Movies and go about your household chores and just take a break when there’s a song you like.

111 minutes
Rated PG