Finding Ted Neeley

About a month ago I watched Norman Jewison’s 1973 film “Jesus Christ Superstar” for the first time.  The film and musical score date from my childhood, and I was therefore amazed that it has held onto its “freshness” in terms of its music and impact.  

To begin with, it seems Rice and Webber’s rock opera is able to focus upon the humanity and emotions of the characters in remarkable ways because of its overarching minimalism. Paring the Passion down to an rock-operatic “tribe” as Rice and Webber did allows “Superstar” to  delve into the human perspective in unexpected, modern ways.  In essence, we see Jesus’ life and mission through the eyes of just a handful of his closest friends, friends to whom we can relate in their unvarnished humanity.  Even Christ becomes feeling flesh and blood—a true incarnation.

In Jewison’s adaptation the subtle personalities created by the actors are nothing short of awe-inspiring considering how well-known the canonical historical figures are.  Jesus (Ted Neeley), Judas (Carl Anderson) and Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) in particular weave delicate, humanized individuals, experienced from many angles: they are transformed before our eyes via the songs and the story, painted against the dramatic scenery of the Holy Land.    

Such unaccustomed intimacy with iconic figures as is found in the movie, though common in popular culture today, remains unusual in religious matters, and can be overwhelming to the viewer. Undoubtedly this effect was magnified three decades ago.

In particular, early in the movie, we cinematically eavesdrop upon a highly spiritual and intimate moment where Mary Magdalene anoints the weary prophet, Christ.  We steadily and inescapably move from her soothing, airy lullaby to a passionate jazz-inflected rhythm wherein the practical-minded Judas complains of misspent money and Christ’s wandering attention (personified by Mary).  Christ rebukes Judas in a deeply revelatory phrase, one which sets up the rest of the Passion play.  

Jesus reveals three themes at once. He senses of the limits of his personal mission, acknowledging that the disadvantaged will always be with us. He furthermore forsees that his time on earth is growing short. Lastly, Jesus looks penetratingly into Judas’ eyes, reading  the apostle’s inability to empty his ego (kenosis) and follow in his footsteps.  At the same moment, Judas slowly realizes that his friend is moving in a direction he cannot (or, really will not). Judas’ gaze recounts his opening number’s doubts: Is Christ mentally unstable?  Is he power-hungry?  Judas’ mind and heart sink, as do Christ’s. The loss is accented with the heartbreaking gesture of the men’s arms beginning in an embrace, sliding down to gripping hands, which then slip apart—like a failed rescue.

As Christ metaphorically begins his departure into the Passion, Judas physically and mentally slips away from Jesus. Even so, their soulful eyes remain locked together, telling us that they cling to each other in very emotional, human terms while greater powers prevail in dividing them.  They are star-crossed souls.

Prior to this—at least since the loss of the gnostic “Gospel of Judas”–Judas was never thought of in this undemonized way.  There is so much more to say…

Putting my reactions to this moving film into words is a bit like trying to explain classical music. Or, trying to paint solely in shades of grey.  Nevertheless, at the moment I am penning an article on just this subject, to be published on “Bread and Circus Magazine“.  I look forward to sharing it in short stead.

Meanwhile, please feel free to comment to me about the film, your reactions to it, or your thoughts on modern religiosity.

Postscript (8/7/08): Please see my related article, Devotio Moderna: Ted Neeley’s Passion Play, which picks up where this one leaves off.

3 Responses to “Finding Ted Neeley”
  1. Elena says:

    I’m a little late to the party here, but I want to let you know how much I appreciate both of your articles. I’ve seen the film countless times, listened to the soundtrack even more times, and every time I see it I am moved to a place that puts me in touch with what I consider to be Spirit. Church didn’t do it for me as a kid, and nothing else has really come close other than my own prayer and meditation. This film is the only external representation of Jesus Christ that gets me there. Anyway, thank you for your thoughtful insights and all the excellent research represented in these articles.

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  1. […] Please see my related article, Finding Ted Neeley. […]

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