Having just celebrated Pentecost, Easter season’s officially over. That said, I can’t help thinking back to Good Friday and to a particular tradition I’ve been able to nail down through the years – I’m not just talking about picking up a solid reflection or that fasting bit (both important), but the somewhat less edifying act of locking in some time to catch a film about Jesus’ life and death. I’ve been lucky enough to have had roomies of such high quality that, though secular, they’ll go through the whole [fish] kebob with me: water, homemade bread and, often, The Passion. But, while Mel Gibson’s flick is an understandable go-to, we’ve taken of late to branching out.
One roommate describes Pier Paolo Pasolini’s* The Gospel According to St. Matthew as a turning point in how she understands film as an artistic medium. Another swears by Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal. These (along with a few others) were mentioned in a previous article here at Dappled Things about a personal favourite of mine, Godspell, a film with an aesthetic approach (Jesus as clown) that hides mammoth theological depth.** It also happens to be a whimsically entertaining musical.
But, whenever musicals about Jesus crop up in conversation, they’re usually overshadowed by one entry in particular:
With fringy shirts, hippie vans and an array of Pharisees looking like they’ve stepped in from Leather Night at some local dive, it’s easy to see why Andrew Lloyd Webber’s entry has hogged all the Broadway attention. And, yeah, why it can make folks uncomfortable. While Godspell’s at least got some theological pedigree sticking out from behind its aesthetic choices (namely Harvey Cox’s Feast of Fools), here Jesus mostly comes off as a rock star at the end of his rope.
So what, really, *is* Superstar’s deal?
Taken at face value, it’s pretty much the gospel story interpreted through the lens of rock and roll – Judas proves a twitchy sidekick, Mary Magdalene leads a flock of groupies and the disciples prove a mob of dopey believers not always able to distinguish the feel-good rebellion of rock from the interior revolution Jesus’s trying to spark. And Jesus, himself, often seems like he’s looking at the passion as some trial standing between him and fame Eternal.
So, on first glance at least, it appears like a self-indulgent exercise in shock value – I mean, what’s more rock*** than recasting Jesus as the ultimate icon? And what’s the point other than just getting a laugh or rise out of people? So I’m sure more than a few Christians might’ve understandably felt the show’s just a way of exploiting the gospel for kicks, or of disrespecting God for the sake of an edgy Broadway hit.
The fact that this’s a very legit response only gets more complicated when, poking beneath the rather glitzy surface, one finds a pulse and a disheveled, grieving heart. There’s a very profound core here, and it’s one of pain, confusion and naked yearning. Again: what exactly is the deal?
Let’s start with what ends up being one of the biggest stumbling blocks for observant Christians: Superstar’s ambiguous portrayal of Jesus. While everyone in the show harbours their own suspicions as to who he is, Superstar makes the interesting choice of opening with Judas’s “Heaven On Their Minds.” He sings:
“You’ve started to believe
The things they say of you
You really do believe
This talk of God is true?
I remember when this whole thing began
No talk of God then, we called you a man”
Which, in a catchy nutshell, captures the essence of Christian anxiety over the movie: is it just going to settle on a familiar everything-was-misinterpreted-the-Books-got-me-wrong deal? Will it, by implication, end up trying to discredit Christian practice and belief through the ages? Which, if that’s what it’s doing, wouldn’t just be understandably offensive – it’d come off as an immature generalization trivializing the struggles, victories, suffering and imperfect progress of an entire population and people. Mostly just because easy assumptions go down better on stage. But is that what the movie’s going for?
Maybe, though also no – that might be a frustrating answer, but the musical doesn’t take any pains to clear the issue up at all. In some scenes he’s an exhausted celebrity activist with good-if-selfish intentions, but in others he’s clearly more than human. The characters trip over themselves bickering over who exactly he is, and that’s probably the only thing they’ve got in common – that, and they’re frantically trying to mask how scared shitless he makes them. Which, don’t get me wrong, can be a perverse bit of fun to watch. Sure, they might be praising, flattering, making fun, consoling or condemning him as the scene requires, but beneath it all’s this aching sense of perplexity, with no payoff in sight. No one’s able to dismiss him, no one’s indifferent, there’s no resolution – just the struggle. And, true to the medium, everyone gets their solo to wrestle with the demons this Jesus pulls out of them. Jesus not excluded.
But while some might see this ambiguity as some kind of narrative trip-up, it turns out to be the whole point of the show – Superstar wasn’t made to be a straightforward representation of the gospels, and if we approach it like that then we’re obviously going to walk away confused and annoyed. With fresh attempts at adapting the story every five years or whatever, it’s not like anyone’s starving for more conventional takes,**** and that leaves us with a proposal from a recent piece here on Dappled Things: why not explore the richness opened up by riffs and interpretations?
When writing about the Soviet Union, George Orwell decided against a traditional style (one that Solzhenitsyn employed with devastating triumph) and instead penned an artfully simple animal fable. Feeling too much familiarity numbs us to atrocity (or awe), Orwell instead created a kind of distance with Animal Farm to help us overcome cliches about Communism and encounter, as if for the first time, the knife-in-your-gut horror of the early Soviet system.***** Similarly, styles like Superstar‘s and Godspell’s, by their very oddity, may end up illuminating the gospel in ways we weren’t able to see before.
I really think Superstar’s ambiguity over the person of Jesus does precisely this – it leaves us in the dark because we, when it comes to God, have ourselves been in the dark. Superstar wants to plant us firmly in the camp of the confused in order to acquaint us, more deeply, with our own fundamental confusion. We don’t actually understand who Jesus is – we’ve been given essential hints along the way, but sometimes they make us so comfortable in our relationship with him we sometimes forget he’s no Tame Lion. The show, beyond its silly costumes and awkward-turtle dance numbers, is really about how we, as a human family, have been as terrible at understanding Christ’s legacy as we’ve been at walking away from him altogether. We’re a people fundamentally unable love or leave him entirely.
The secret here’s understanding how this isn’t the story of Christian response to Jesus over time, but human response. And one of the more illuminating treasures of Superstar is how it’s made through the lens of a culture not typically associated with churchgoing: the counterculture of the sixties and seventies.****** Take, for example, the “Simon Zealotes” number:
This’s basically what you’d get if a Praise & Worship tune was written in a California commune circa 1968 – frolicky dance, afros, group jumps in slow-mo, political angst, gratuitous crotch shots, cheesy editing and heavily sexualized movement. Yet it’s distinctly, and irrevocably, a type of hymn. It may be flawed and guilty of all sorts of problematicish excess, but the sincerity’s there and Superstar’s Jesus is quite aware of how ridiculous it is – his response isn’t ironic or distanced, though, so much as affectionate and tender.
What’s so quietly powerful here is his patience – people are trying to appropriate his message for their own purposes and, rather than calling Simon out or shaming him, Jesus just offers a sober (and very uncool) corrective when it crosses the line into inciting hate. The cultural language may be different from the more common stereotypes of mainstream Christian society (passive social expression, obsessive/constantly-changing dating rules, associating God with certain candidates/parties, JPM), but our odd cultural blips are still transcended by the love of a compassionate Christ.
The cultural ticks of hippie affection are only the tip of the iceberg: reams of pop-culture detritus make their way through the film right from the get-go. Roman guards cradle pitchforks and kalashnikovs. Folks push imaginary reporter-microphones in Jesus’ face as he’s dragged before Caiaphas. Outfits appear jacked from A Night at the Roxbury. Judas flees a line of oncoming tanks. Physical humour seems ripped from a Chuck Jones cartoon. Fighter planes descend, at first, like angels. While Last Temptation and the Passion at least try to maintain a sense of realism, Superstar takes every opportunity to delight in its own phantasmagoria – but that’s just because realism’s the last thing on its mind. Instead of trying to represent a historical moment, like most gospel films, it goes for capturing our ambiguous relationship with God in a post-Christian culture. Everything’s a fever dream, and that fever dream is us.
Nowhere is this more stark than in the table-tossing scene – Jesus arrives at the temple to see a hellish market hawking playing cards, uzis, chickens, something resembling computer discs, grenades, fur coats, cocaine, washing machines and currencies from every modern superpower. Someone sells the whip that’s later used at the scourging. Women offer their bodies in uncomfortably provocative ways. The whole scene’s a wraith of weaponry, objectification, addiction and abuse, but what makes it so jarring is how modern it all is. The nature of Jerusalem’s corruption isn’t something other – it’s our world, one that, no matter how socially responsible we try to live, we’re probably all at least somewhat complicit in maintaining. Jesus, here, comes to overturn our own dark impulses.
Watch it again, but this time notice how it shifts immediately into the leper sequence – the marketplace song twists from a declaration of rebellion into a cry for help. If you look closely, the same people who were selling now beg Jesus for healing and relief:
The implications are a mug of cold water to the face: the same people, these same cultures, are demanding restoration from God even as they work to create/maintain suffering – Superstar’s trying to scratch under the floorboards of how exactly we, as a modern people, express our contradictions. The music: hypnotic. All hands reach up for solace. All fingers point back at ourselves. No other Jesus movie digs so deeply into our dynamic, at times hypocritical God-hauntedness.
Even the parts that aren’t theologically sound have value – take, for example, how Jesus screams at the lepers to leave him alone. He, being God, certainly has more than enough energy and attention for everyone, so seeing him put up boundaries for his own protection might come as jarring. But it was a sharp reminder, at least for me, that even if God’s as invested in our healing as we believe him to be, it certainly doesn’t make it a pleasant experience for him. The sight of a saviour exhausted by the bottomless hunger of the world makes me appreciate how much I’m put up with.
One of the most powerful numbers, though, is when Jesus gets brought before Herod. Excuse the terrible formatting.
While this slice of bizarro might be offputting to some, it also happens to be a gobsmackingly rich tableau. Follow me here. Herod and his crew are a perfect representation of type of extreme hedonism often contrasted with Christian culture back in the sixties and seventies – while Christians were stereotypically seen as prudish and repressed, especially when it came to sex, hedonists of this ilk worshiped new sensations for their own sake. So much so that, in the pursuit of even more pleasure, regular things stopped satisfying – to get their kicks, practitioners had to keep pushing the edge.
But, here at least, it’s seen as a dead end. Herod’s incredibly sexualized – a middle-aged, powerful man surrounded by younger, attractive people engaged in making his fantasies live and breathe. Everything from the way he moves to the way he sings speaks to a taste for control and gratification. And it’s never enough – nowhere does Herod look satisfied, and the outlandish getups his retinue sports are a symbol of how far he stretches himself/people around him in a bid to find connection and, maybe, intimacy. But no dice.
Never before have we seen an image of the type created here – when the camera zooms out, we’ve got Christ standing across the water from what basically amounts to a floating fetish club. The sixties and the seventies were at time when people were trying to throw off deeply-entrenched Christian influences, and here we have a razor-sharp depiction of precisely that ideological standoff. If that makes us uncomfortable, perhaps we need reminding that this’s what it means when we say Jesus comes for all – this’s precisely the kinds of encounter God has every day. But, as Christian art generally doesn’t veer far in this direction, it’s the kind of meeting that rarely finds public expression.
As the song begins, Herod’s coyly making fun of Jesus – he’s a man, after all, who wants us to believe he’s seen it all and remains unimpressed. That said, Jesus is the superstar de jour and must, of course, be paid homage. It’s not like Herod’s got anything better to do anyway, and so begins a ghastly jig where, though his background dancers kick and giggle at all the right notes, their faces make clear how hollow their energy is. You can pretty much hear the bones rattling. Jesus, for them, is just the latest in an endless train of distraction – or so it would seem.
Herod’s never short of of quips (“prove to me that you’re no fool / walk across my swimming pool!”), but a hint of sincerity creeps in when he sings “I’m dying to be shown you are not just any man.” And if that’s not enough, at two minutes and thirty seconds into the number, he gets pissed – like, the kind of pissed you get when you’re let down, when you feel betrayed. It’s like Herod, for all his posturing, can’t help hoping Jesus actually is all they say of him. He certainly can’t articulate that desire, and I wouldn’t assume he’s even aware of it. But maybe he’s exhausted of chasing after illusions – maybe he’s yearning, in spite of his compulsions, to grasp at something substantial. Something that lasts.
Jesus, though, is silent through it all and Herod rushes at him through the water, chucking loaves of bread like grenades. His crew hold him back as he positively froths “get out of my life!” Exactly like a scorned lover.
No matter who’s on screen, Jesus can’t help wrenching their genuine selves out of them – with Herod, it’s the repressed longing behind the hedonism. Mary Magdalene’s frightened by her own capacity for devotion, especially after a life of already having “had so many men before / In very many ways.” The pharisees’ dogmatic rigidity can’t hide their panic. Pilate finds, in Jesus, an opportunity to express care (and even tenderness) even in his role as a cruel official. Among his apostles, in a touching number around the last supper, the expected declarations of faith make space for their fear of being forgotten in death. Judas, at the end of this scene, is already fed up with Jesus to the point of betrayal – but even his detached, witty persona isn’t strong enough to do away with love.
And, as the whole thing starts with Judas, so it ends channeling his frustration in the movie’s most delightfully, searingly loopy sequence: the title song.
The pretensions are gone – there’s no more attempts at even suggesting a historical or biblical moment here. Pilate’s trial vanishes into thin air and Jesus stand alone in an abandoned amphitheatre until Judas, in an encore after his own suicide, descends on the cross to interrogate his God.
‘God’ is the right word here, because Judas’s speaking not only to Superstar’s celebrity Christ, but just as much to the Jesus of history:
“Every time I look at you
I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did
Get so out of hand
You’d have managed better
If you had it planned
Now why’d you choose such a backward time
And such a strange land?
If you’d come today
You could have reached the whole nation
Did you mean to die like that,
Was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death
Would be a record breaker?
It’s a cry to a God who, in a modern world of war and heartbreak, seems mute, to a God who’s had representatives commit atrocities and dismantle the trust of thousands, maybe millions, to a God whose methods appear petty, inscrutable or self-promoting. And all this from a man who, for all his reasons to be angry, is only hurt because, behind all the confusion, there still resides a wounded, beating love. A love coming through by means of frilly pants, groove numbers and an impromptu choir that can’t help asking, for all their snark:
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
It’s an expression of care and concern just as the way of the cross is launched. It’s an echo of longing in the thick of perplexity. In perhaps the last decade where Christian concerns were considered worthy of widespread, mainstream engagement, the last decade before an entire generation convinced itself of Jesus’s irrelevance, a strange, unrepeatable combination of fetish, fantasy and reverence played itself out in a Palestinian ruin. Superstar’s Jesus, in the end, isn’t Jesus – he’s a way for our culture, a culture in the process of shrugging off certain Christian ideas and values, to deal with the echo of a Person. We don’t come to Superstar to find Christ. We come to look in a mirror at our collective, contorting, haunted relationship with the Am that Is.
*Pier’s film, as well as his career as a director, screams for a more in-depth engagement – this is one of the most important works of a director capable of making both one of the greatest biblical films of all time (admitted even by the Vatican) as well as the definitive adaptation of what’s perhaps the most infamous book in literary history. This is not the last time an Italian director of international stature launched a successful exploration of Christian themes.
**Jesus becoming a person is way more bonkers than wearing makeup and a silly wig – to make a big deal of Christ-as-clown can be seen as a denial of the Incarnation’s fullest potential. The movie also helps remind us of how ridiculous we are and how generous God is.
***Or punk, for that matter
****Besides, with versions as successful as Mel Gibson’s version (or the Franco Zeffirelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini ones), one might say that mission’s successfully been accomplished.
*****This experiment was attempted again by Yann Martel, in the context of the Holocaust, in his follow-up to Life of Pi: Beatrice and Virgil. His novel, it must be said, was considerably less successful than Orwell’s.
******The style changes according to the times, but the musical always uses symbols and stereotypes that are seen as hostile to traditional Christian culture and values.
Josh Nadeau is currently based in Russia and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.