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Jesus Christ Superstar

When I was four years old, my mother took me to the movies and we saw Jesus Christ Superstar – the filmed version of Andrew Lloyd Weber's so-called "rock opera." I still don't know why she took me, because I didn't understand what was going on in the least…but I loved it nonetheless for the music and the weird visuals. During the song "Damned For All Time" when Judas is being chased by tanks (talk about subtle symbolism!), I shouted out "Batman!" because the musical beat was very similar to the Batman TV series, which was in reruns at the time (1973) and which I followed religiously. Several other moments in the film having to do with the actors climbing up and down on scaffolding (sheesh!), or Judas being lowered from Heaven by a rope to sing the climactic number "Superstar" remained in my mind for a long time afterwards…and since the soundtrack album starring Ian Gillian of Deep Purple was played fairly regularly in our home for years afterwards, this movie was probably one of the strongest influences on my "faith" and "belief" as I was growing up.

As I grew older, I thought about he movie every so often and pondered it…eventually deciding that the musical was written by Lloyd Weber in order to identify with the cynical anti-establishment culture that existed around 1970, as the flower-power movement ate itself up and descended into anarchy. (Woodstock to Altamont, perhaps?) The musical (and the movie) takes the famous moments from the Gospel and turns them on their side, portraying Jesus as a disillusioned rabble-rouser who was getting tired of running around the countryside and who wondered if his work would outlast him, or if it would die with him; while at the same time Judas sees Jesus as becoming enamoured with his own myths, believing the hype. The movie, in turn, is definitely a product of the early 1970s, and the visuals haven't aged very well. Every time I watch this film and see the long-haired actors singing their roles, I get an urge to wear bell-bottom pants and not take a bath for a week. The movie outraged many religious figures when it came out, of course; but then again, even The Greatest Story Ever Told had bomb threats being sent to movie theaters. If there's any movie about Jesus that hasn't sparked a firestorm of controversy, then I haven't heard of it.

The film's use of modern-day images as a way of "symbolising" the relevance of the Biblical story, while updating it for modern audiences, seems very awkward. The Roman soldiers wear modern-day Army uniforms and carry machine guns, while jet planes soar overhead to represent "angels" during the moment when Judas betrays Jesus. The beginning of the film shows the cast members arriving at the site of the film on a bus, and the film ends on a solemn note as the cast boards the bus and looks back sadly at the cross they've left mounted. These moments are meant to tell us that this isn't a "literal" telling of the Gospel story, but it almost certainly caused people to scratch their heads in confusion when the movie was first released (like I said, I was too young to understand it myself), because heavy-handed symbolism of this sort tends to fly over the heads of most audience members.

And yet, despite the film's flaws, there's still an underlying message underneath that is re-worked in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and which influenced my own beliefs as well..the idea of Christ as a human being, one who is struggling to change the world and who is afraid of the fate awaiting him. This is a portrayal of the idea of Christ that I've grown to accept, and it's one that I've personally found more comforting than the one portrayed more commonly in church: that of the omnipotent judge sent down with complete knowledge of what was going happen, and who didn't break a sweat even when he was being crucified. Maybe it's just the cynic in me, but I find the idea of Jesus as a man instead of God more comforting, because it inspires me to find strength within myself – just like he did.

So if Jesus Christ Superstar is a dated product of the 1970s that people can point to as a way of showing how silly the hippie movement could be, it's still a thought-provoking movie that I found a lot more inspiring than Godspell.

And the "Batman" music is still cool.