“It was beautiful but now it’s sour…”
Way down deep in the bowels of your parents’ basement, you’re bound to find a vinyl copy of Jesus Christ Superstar. To be clear, I’m referring to the original motion picture soundtrack, not “the brown one,” which is the original Broadway recording. It may be in the box of Playboys that your dad hid among old tax returns, but somewhere in that damp basement, JC Superstar lays waiting to be (re-)discovered.
Once you find a record player to spin it, you’ll soon realize that JC Superstar ROCKS (for the most part). A musical interpretation of the last week of Jesus Christ, JC Superstar at the time was a stunning allegory of Nixonian governmental paranoia and political suppression of a passionate, hopeful counterculture. (Little did we know that Trumpski would out-Nixon Nixon a thousandfold…) The narrative is told from the perspective of Judas, who was not a doubter of the good works of Jesus, but fearful of the emergence of Jesus as a messiah. As Judas sings in the opener “Heaven On Their Minds”: “I am frightened of the crowd, for we are getting much too loud, and they’ll crush us if we go too far….”
The film, directed by Norman Jewison, is a true hippie artifact. I remember going to see it with my aunt, a young Catholic mom who liked to party. Seeing all those stringy-haired and Jewfro’ed hippie actors and dancers, in their dashikis, bell bottoms, and peasant blouses, disembark from their school bus in their street clothes, while the manic JC Superstar Overture played, I was a bit scared. These players were dirty and they looked baked by the sun, high as kites. After all, the only other hippies I saw on screen were the crazed criminals on shows like Hawaii 5-0 and The Streets of San Francisco.
But I soon got into the spirit of their performance. This was about Jesus and Jesus was cool—a pre-Marx Marxist—until he opens his mouth. Because, while a revolutionary; a hippie; a lover, not a fighter; a philosopher; and, oh yeah, the son of God, Jesus, as played and sung by Ted Neely, is a bit hard to watch. And a bit hard to listen to. It’s a chuckle that pop culture can take one of the most poignant, tragic bromances of all time and turn it into a sing-off—in the song “Everything’s Alright”—between Jesus and Judas, played by the magnetic powerhouse Carl Anderson (who would later die of leukemia before he turned 60).
“Everything’s Alright” first comes on like a hippie brainwashing, with a pretty melody underneath Mary Magdalene’s soothing, lilting voice assuring Jesus that she’ll take care of him. As the song slips into a triad, things get a bit darker, as Judas takes Mary M. to task for spending too much money on oil (I believe it is the oft-mentioned myrrh) when the poor need so much. Jesus then intervenes, as he tells Judas that there will always be poor people struggling and then things get personal, as he tells Judas that his followers “will be lost and sorry when he’s gone.” While Anderson’s Judas is mesmerizing, Neely wins the sing-off. Because you really have to stick to the original text for this one.
While not all the songs of Jesus Christ Superstar hold up—many are too unmelodic and sung in awful timbres, there are enough gems that make the whole production work. The Hawaiian-born alto Yvonne Elliman is a wonder as Mary Magdalene, who turned “I Don’t Know How to Live Him,” into an international middle school choir standard, as it should be—every young girl should imagine herself as a prostitute who is tortured by a love for the savior of mankind. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber said later that the part was written for Elliman, after he and Tim Rice discovered her singing standards in a London club. Elliman went on to be Eric Clapton’s backup singer, accompanying him on his hit, “Wonderful Tonight,” and later a pop queen in the disco era with “If I Can’t Have You,” a standout on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. The ballad “Could We Start Again, Please?” is lovely in a “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” kind of way, with Mary M., Paul, and Thomas trading off lead vocals, before their voices converge with a lot of hippie acolytes pining away for their dead savior.
Combining acid rock, hippie balladry, and revamped cabaret/burlesque, JC Superstar was the perfect vehicle to express the communitarian hangover of the 1960s and signal the existence of an unsettling hybrid of evangelical Protestantism and countercultural remains: The Jesus Freaks. (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and Sister Janet Mead’s “The Lord’s Prayer” also were early 1970s Jesus Freak signifiers.) Ultimately, and perhaps a bit ironically, JC Superstar opened the gates of hell, spawning generations of fundy-Christian rock that used the structures of rock and the trappings of rock and roll style to present their own Biblical messages, sadly, ones that were a bit short on brotherly love.