An Easter Film Recommendation: Jesus Christ Superstar

It’s the time of year when various types of Christianity celebrate Easter, and it’s time for a film recommendation.

It might seem superfluous, but I always recommend the 1973 film production of Jesus Christ Superstar.  I’m surprised how many people haven’t seen this film (or a stage production of the work). I’m further surprised by how many people think it’s a simple saccharine “Yay Jesus!” production. That isn’t the case at all. Not only are the performances top-notch, but the work itself has a few things that are important for examining modern-day Christianity.

The first (though implied) is the concept of Judas as being necessary for the whole thing to work, Without Judas’ betrayal, the whole thing kind of falls apart.  This is a relatively modern point of view, and is still revolutionary for many people.

Second – and explicit – is how insane the whole thing is.  As Judas points out, “Now why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?”  This is a central mystery (in the religious sense) and no clear answer is ever given. By making this explicit, it highlights the necessity for faith and the ineffableness of God’s plan.

Third – also explicit, but most important for me – is that Jesus is portrayed as a person.  For the sacrifice of Jesus to be meaningful, the incarnation of Jesus (argue among yourselves whether fully human, fully divine, or both) had to be ignorant of the whole Divine plan. In fact, Jesus had to – just as much as anyone today – be running on faith and not Divine knowledge.  Otherwise the sacrifice of Jesus is a charade.  If you watch nothing else of the film, watch Ted Neeley’s performance of Gethsemane.  It is so strikingly human and full of doubt, defiance, questioning, and obedience that it gives me chills every single time.

Ted Neeley – Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say) (Jesus Christ Superstar Soundtrack) from Cineritüel on Vimeo.

We are not given the visceral relief of Easter itself; within the film, everything ends on Good Friday, driving home the limitations of human understanding and the terror and doubt that come when faith is tested.

While this isn’t the most kid-friendly movie – the catchy early songs belie the pain of the later ones – its occasionally surreal rendering, great music, wonderful performances, and haunting performance during the end credits make it a powerful testament to the universality of doubt and the power of faith.

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