Jesus Christ Superstar


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)


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.


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.


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.


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

Phantom of The Paradise


20th Century Fox

Written and Directed by Brian DePalma

Produced by Edward R. Pressman

Mention the name Brian DePalma and most people will probably cite him as the director of Hitchcockian style thrillers such as ‘Dressed To Kill’, ‘Blow Out’ or ‘Sisters’. I myself would be more apt to mention ‘The Untouchables’, ‘Scarface’ or his vastly underrated and overlooked Vietnam War movie, ‘Casualties of War’. And nobody would even dare bring up ‘Bonfires of The Vanities’ but very few would have his satirical horror rock musical PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE be the first title to come to mind. And I can understand why. It’s a movie unlike any other Brian DePalma had made up to that point and he never would again. In my research for this review I learned that apparently the only place this movie was a success was Canada and everyplace else was considered a major box office flop. And then ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was released the year after and we all know what a cult phenomenon that became and so PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE became further eclipsed.

It’s a shame, though. For my money, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is the far better movie with a compelling story based on the Faust legend as well as ‘Phantom Of The Opera’ with a generous helping of ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ tossed in and done well with great energy and style. Everybody involved looks as if they’re having a great time and best of all; nobody’s taking themselves or the material too seriously. They know they’re making a satirical spoof of horror films and taking broadly generous pokes at the record industry but it’s all in fun. I’ve spoken to plenty of people who worship at the altar of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and have seen the movie more than a hundred times. I’ve seen it exactly twice and have no intention of ever seeing it again but I’ve seen PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE about five times and could cheerfully watch it another five times.

Swan (Paul Williams) is the hideously powerful creative genius behind Death Records, capable of influencing musical trends on a day-to-day basis. Swan can create rock stars and elevate them to godhood or destroy them and leave them broken with a frightening ease. Swan is searching for just the right music and singer for the opening of his music palace, The Paradise. He finds the music in a cantata written by Winslow Leach (William Finley) that is over 200 pages long and based on the Faust legend. Swan’s number one henchman Arnold Philbin (George Memmoli) goes to meet with Winslow and through a combination of generous flattery, heaping helpings of bovine excrement and just plain lying; he gets hold of Winslow’s cantata, promising that Swan will make him a star.

Hah. That’s a laugh. Swan takes the cantata, refuses to meet with Winslow and has him thrown out time and again from the Death Records building. But Winslow is persistent and during one of his efforts to get in and confront Swan, meets up with Phoenix (Jessica Harper) who has the most beautiful voice he’s ever heard. Swan finally has Winslow set up on a phony drug possession rap and sentenced to Sing Sing. Winslow is a broken man until he hears that his cantata is to be performed at the opening night of The Paradise by Swan’s cheesy 50’s doo-wop boy band, The Juicy Fruits. Winslow’s mind snaps and he goes berserk, escaping from Sing Sing and making it to the Death Records pressing factory where he tries to destroy the huge machine pressing out copies of the album.

(We Interrupt This Review For A Historical Footnote: Before there were CDs and MP3s there were these things called ‘albums’ that people used to listen to music on. They were made of vinyl and a device known as a turntable was used to play them. We Now Return You To Your Regularly Scheduled Review.)

Winslow’s head is caught inside the hot record pressing machine but he manages to get free.  Driven totally mad by physical and psychological pain he flees from pursuing police who chase him to The East River where he falls in and is presumed dead. No such luck. Soon, The Paradise is being haunted by a leather clad, caped figure wearing a silver bird-like mask who commits acts of murder and destruction, delaying the opening of The Paradise. It’s Winslow, of course. But he’s horribly deformed and his voice has been destroyed. And he won’t allow Swan to let anybody except Phoenix sing his music. Swan agrees to this and even makes a deal with Winslow (they sign a contract in blood) who agrees to rewrite his cantata for Phoenix. But Swan has other plans up his well-tailored sleeve…

From that short summary it sounds as if PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a straight up horror film and if it was told in a straight up and down manner, it would be. But DePalma tells the story in a loopy, freewheeling style with crazy camera angles, split screens, a jumbled up music score that has everything from doo-wop to heavy metal, drugs, orgies, outrageous violence and yes, a lot of laughs. It also manages to get in a hell of a lot of plot in its 97 minutes, which means that the movie is never slow, and never lags. There’s always something happening and the twists and turns the story takes ensures that your attention won’t be allowed to wander.

I like all the performances in this movie. This is probably the best acting job Paul Williams has ever done and he is obviously enjoying himself. Swan is a terrific villain who relishes being such an unprincipled bastard. Along with George Memmoli as Philbin, they make a great team. They go about their villainy with just a day-to-day attitude that it makes it seem almost reasonable that they do such horrible things to people.

William Finley is wonderfully sympathetic as Winslow Leach/The Phantom and never fails to make you feel the pain of his character. I like how after his transformation into The Phantom he takes on a definite superheroish flair, climbing over rooftops, swinging from ropes and such, racing down corridors with his huge cape billowing behind him. Gerrit Graham nearly steals the movie as the bitchy hard rocker Beef. Every time he appears on screen he’s doing something that left me sore with laughter, including the scene where he slips and falls on stage and is trying to get up but his two foot high platform shoes keep getting in the way.

But Jessica Harper is the real star of the movie. I think Jessica Harper is a marvelous actress and one of the world’s most gorgeous women and it shows here. The camera simply loves her and when she’s on screen you don’t want to take your eyes off of her. I can’t help but feel she’s been vastly underused in the movies. When she gets a meaty role in movies such as ‘My Favorite Year’ ‘Pennies From Heaven’ and ‘Suspira’ she’s magic. Wish I could say the same about her dancing. Just sit back and watch her dance in this movie. She makes Elaine Benes look like Tina Turner. I’m serious, folks. She’s that bad a dancer. But what the hell, her acting more than makes up for her two left feet and she gets to sing and that ain’t bad at all.

So should you see PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE? A lot of people are probably going to be turned off by the production values of the movie as it looks as if it were filmed on the smallest budget possible. The concert scenes look as if they were filmed in a high school auditorium and the attitudes of the characters is pure cheesy 70’s. The music score is done by Paul Williams and while it’s not memorable, it serves the needs of the story and the closing theme, “The Hell Of It” is probably the best song in the movie but I like the goofy opening song, “Goodbye, Eddie” as well. And Jessica Harper gets to sing two ballads that may not be show stoppers but they don’t suck, either… Hell, I’d watch Jessica Harper sing VCR instruction manuals without complaint.

So don’t let the movie’s 70’s production value stop you from checking it out. It’s done in a flamboyant visual style with an intriguing mix of the horror, musical, social satire and comedy genres and mixed very well in my opinion. One genre doesn’t dominate the others and the mix ensures that it’s not a boring movie. If you get The Fox Movie Channel on your cable/satellite provider, you’ll be sure to see the movie. Somebody in Programming there must be a fan of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE since it seems to get run there twice a month, usually after midnight on a Friday or Saturday which is really the best time to see the movie. But if you don’t go ahead and Netflix it. It doesn’t have the polish and sophistication of Brian DePalma’s later films but that’s part of its decidedly goofy charm.

97 minutes

Rated PG

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride

Warner Bros.

Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson
Produced by Tim Burton and Allison Abbate
Written by John August, Pamela Pettler and Caroline Thompson

There’s only two types of filmmakers that would do a stop-motion animation film these days: one who is either insanely patient or one who has a genuine and deep love for the art form. Most animation is done on computers these days and stop-motion animation just simply isn’t done any more because…well, let’s put it this way: you don’t do a stop motion animated film if you’re in a rush. Simply put: the process involves building extraordinarily detailed model figures and then moving them just a millimeter, shooting one frame of film, then moving the character another millimeter, shooting that frame and so on and so on. I’ve read that when this process is going well, stop-motion animators can get two minutes of film every two weeks, which they consider fantastic.

Ray Harryhausen is the undisputed master of stop-motion animation and the battle between half a dozen live actors and nearly a dozen skeleton swordsmen in “Jason And The Argonauts” is still considered to be the greatest stop-motion animated sequence of all time and even Mr. Harryhausen has said that doing that sequence nearly drove him crazy. There’s a nice little homage to Mr. Harryhausen in TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE that I liked. I like it when I see acknowledgments to artists like Mr. Harryhausen as it’s easy to forget that men like him were the ones who were able to pioneer their art form that give us movies like TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE.

And the movie should be seen and appreciated for the brilliant technical work that’s gone into making it but as for the actual story itself…well, that’s another matter altogether….

Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) is roped into an arraigned marriage by his parents (voiced by Tracy Ullman and Paul Whitehouse) who have gotten rich from selling fish, if you can believe it. The marriage will bail out the parents of Victoria Everglot (she’s voiced by Emily Watson while Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney are the parents) who have position, breeding and social standing but are stone cold broke. The marriage is advantageous all way around: The Van Dorts get social credibility while The Everglots get a much needed transfusion of cash into their blue blood veins. The only ones not happy about the marriage is Victoria who was hoping that she’d be in love with the man she going to marry while Victor is simply too much of a nervous wreck to be able to go through with the rehearsal.

Victor goes to the graveyard behind the church to practice his wedding vows and while doing so places the ring on what he thinks is a rotted twig but is actually the finger bone of Emily (Helena Bonham Carter)

whose arm is sticking up out a hastily dug grave. Emily was murdered by the man she was supposed to run off with and marry and when she comes up out of her grave, still garbed in her tattered wedding dress she falls in love with Victor and takes him with her to the land of the dead where their marriage is celebrated. Meanwhile, back in the land of the living, The Everglots have decided that since Victor has apparently run off, they quickly fob Victoria off on the mysterious and sinister Baron Barkus Bittern (Richard E. Grant) whose eventual role in the story will come as no surprise. Will Victor be able to return to the land of the living in time to prevent Victoria’s marrying Baron Barkus? And even if he does, what will happen to Emily since he did marry her of his own free will and even though she’s dead as Julius Caesar, she do love that man of hers and has no intention of giving him up to some floozy whose heart is still beating.

TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE is the kind of movie that I expected I would fall in love with as I did with “The Nightmare Before Christmas” but I just couldn’t get into this one. It’s absolutely wonderful to look at and the stop-motion animation is spectacular but the story didn’t grab me at all. Only Tim Burton would make a love story this gothic and dark, filled with murder, death, betrayal and good-natured mean-spiritness.  But I found myself admiring the technical aspects and not really paying much attention to what was going on story-wise. I liked the voice work a lot and I liked how the animators even managed to make Emily sorta sexy even though she’s a rotting corpse. But the movie isn’t horrific enough or romantic enough or funny enough. Tim Burton throws in a lot of elements but none of them seem to come together, especially the big musical number, which explains the story of The Corpse Bride. The sequence is just thrown in there mainly because I think Burton wanted a sequence with a chorus line of dancing skeletons.

In fact, the land of the dead doesn’t seem to be such a bad place as everybody seems to having a better time dead than they did alive. The colors are brighter, everybody’s partying and wisecracking all over the place and Victor is happily surprised to be reunited with his dead dog Scraps who is now just a playful skeleton. “You should have seen him when he had fur,” Victor says fondly while tickling the dog’s skull.

I think Tim Burton was going for a different sort of Halloween movie just as his “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was a different kind of Christmas movie but I thought that earlier film much more fun and entertaining with characters that really moved the story. That doesn’t happen here and actually, the movie seems slow moving and even plodding in spots and even though it’s only 76 minutes it seems twice as long. But most of the wisecracks coming from the dead folks are really funny and The Town Crier has what is perhaps the best line in the movie and the only one that made me laugh out loud.  But the Peter Lorre inspired maggot who lives in Emily’s head was just downright annoying and a distraction from what was really going on.

So should you see TIM BURTON’S CORPSE BRIDE?  It’s a magnificent movie if you’re looking at it strictly from a technical standpoint and as a Tim Burton movie it’s definitely worth a viewing if you’re a fan of the director.

Rated PG
76 minutes