A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Jesus Christ Superstar, a filmed version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hugely successful staged rock opera, is a fantastical departure from its biblical source. Using a "play-within-a-play" format, the last week of Jesus' life is acted out by a ragtag group of 1970s bohemians (or "flower children) in a desolate desert setting. There is no dialogue. Rock music provides plot and mood and accompanies all the action. Director Norman Jewison blends modernity with antiquity throughout. Costumes change from 1973 to 29 A.D. and back again. Twentieth-century weaponry, dancing, and, of course, rock music, become the means of retelling this age-old story. Despite the G rating the film earned in 1973, there is considerable violence, including Jesus receiving 39 lashes (with lots of blood); Judas Iscariot taking his own life; and a lengthy, intense sequence depicting Jesus' crucifixion. This is an experimental work, controversial when it was first released. Audiences expecting a traditional Christian recounting will be surprised, at the very least. Given the graphic nature of the violence, as well as the unconventional treatment of Jesus' last days, the movie is best for older or very mature kids.
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What's the story?
In this version of New Testament events surrounding Jesus' death, Christ (Ted Neely) is depicted as the first true celebrity. It's structured as a "play within a play," with a busload of pilgrims landing in a modern-day desert and making sets, props, and costumes to present their interpretation of the savior's last days. There is no spoken dialogue; a rock opera score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and dancing provide the narrative. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR finds the young prophet leading an exuberant troop of starstruck followers with Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) at his side, while his dearest friend and disciple, Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson), worries that his idol's message is being corrupted by the growing stardom. Here, Judas is far from a betrayer grasping for a satchel of gold but rather an honorable, if misguided, loyalist. Jesus himself recognizes that it is only in death that his word will become widespread and powerful. The rest of the players -- Pontius Pilate, Herod, and Caiaphas -- carry out their formidable roles as the villains.
Is it any good?
Whether or not viewers will enjoy this movie mostly depends on an appreciation for Andrew Lloyd Webber's distinctive music, especially since there's no spoken dialogue. A few of the songs ("I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Jesus Christ Superstar") have become classics, and they're representative of Webber's score for this unconventional treatment of the age-old tale. For some, it may simply register as silly or frenzied. For Christian scholars, the license taken by Webber, director Jewison, and company is of biblical proportions. Still, the movie is high on energy and irreverent at times and strives for originality. Impressive performances by both Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman stand out from the rest of the cast, most of whom play everything big, bigger, and biggest. Most likely, the MPAA ratings board that tagged the movie with a G rating would have second thoughts today; the crucifixion, bloody lashing, and suicide scenes are definitely not appropriate for kids. First conceived as an album of Webber's biblically themed music, Jesus Christ Superstar as a staged production has had revivals and played throughout the world over the last decades.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Jesus Christ being portrayed as the world's first superstar. Which similarities do you see in the way celebrities are "worshipped" in today's world?
Besides the music, which techniques did the filmmakers use to update the telling of Jesus' story and make it more relevant for modern viewers?
Why was Judas afraid that Jesus' popularity might hurt his cause? Have you seen other instances in which the messenger becomes more important than the message?
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