Strange Things Mystifying

On Queerness, Fate, and Adaptation as Tragedy in Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar | Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

Jesus Christ Superstar begins with a shot of a bus driving into the desert. From a comfortable distance, the camera tracks the vehicle as it pulls into an open stretch of land, all crags and rocks and dust. The passengers depart and begin to unload, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s overture playing over the action, building to one crescendo after another. Props, costumes, equipment pour out of the bus alongside the film’s cast, who gradually shed their street clothes and slip into outfits that are mostly colorful rags. The sequence ends when Ted Neeley, the film’s unlikely Jesus, emerges from the bus. The cast, save one, gathers around him in pantomime adulation, helping him put on his simple white tunic while Carl Anderson, our Judas, jogs to a perch on a distant hill, ready to begin.  

A bus full of actors is a striking, anachronistic way to begin a story that is, ostensibly, a pop-rock take on a Passion Play.1 As an adaptation of the concept album turned Broadway hit, Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar is ostensibly a distillation of the over-the-top energy of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s music, which reconfigures the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus into a grand rock opera about the falling out of two men who at their most innocent are very good friends, one of whom happens to also possibly be the Son of God. But its opening, with actors dutifully working to fill the empty desert space as Webber’s music builds, is more melancholy than ostentatious. 

Adapting musicals has always been tricky for Hollywood. Despite the fact that it’s one of the oldest forms of big-budget filmmaking, it’s remarkably hard to get right. The problem is one of mediums: watching a musical on stage, it’s a lot easier to accept lapses of realism. After all, we’ve already accepted the biggest one: that the people standing in front of us are pretending we aren’t here and acting like people they’re not. On film, that leap is trickier, especially when directors attempt to insert more traditionally realist styles of storytelling into the equation. When we see movies, it’s easy for us to imagine that this is some version of reality, and most mainstream filmmaking works to prop up and use that illusion. So when people in musicals do what people in musicals do, dancing and singing and making a whole spectacle of themselves, it can feel distancing, artificial, flat. In the best case, they can feel a little silly, and in the worst they can collapse into incoherent nonsense. Consider Chris Columbus’ adaptation of Rent, which feels like one long, bad commercial; or Tom Hooper’s Cats, which tries so hard to translate the self-conscious surrealism of the musical into something coherent that it ends up feeling like a Benadryl-fueled nightmare. 

Jesus Christ Superstar | Universal Pictures

 Jesus Christ Superstar is interested in what’s left of a musical on film when you cut away any vain attempts at realism. This film, unlike most movie adaptations of stage musicals, is aware of its identity as an adaptation. The actors are actors in the gaze of the film as well as in reality. When this all ends, they’ll pack up, get on the bus, and go home. Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t an adaptation of the show; it’s a production of it, an awareness that rests subtextually beneath every element of the film. It lends a quiet resonance to the story’s events, as everything starts to slowly spiral out of control. All the show’s important players seem to act with a sort of doubled consciousness, simultaneously aware of their roles in the story as well as their roles as actors within a play about that story. They’re constantly hounded by dread, by the awareness of exactly where this story ends and their own inability to change it. 

You can see it with Judas, right at the beginning, as he jogs to his perch away from the rest of the cast to start the proceedings of the in-film “show.” As played by Carl Anderson, Judas is a boundless well of energy and despair. Anderson’s performance is, for my money, one of the best in any musical on film. He sings with virtuosity while being emotionally engaged every moment he’s on screen. He’s an eternal bellwether for what’s happening in the story, at turns terrified, lovelorn, and grieved. Musicals require performances that are both melodramatic and human, and Anderson balances at an extreme without ever appearing unrelatable.

Here, during his first song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” he’s unravelling. He sees what’s coming: if nothing changes, Jesus and his movement will become too big, too political, and draw the attention of the Roman authorities (the oppression of the Roman Empire being a constant, looming threat here, as it is in most versions of this story). But his awareness seems doubled, too, in Anderson’s performance, and in the staging, as he’s dressed in a stark red to counter the earthen tones of the rags and robes Jesus and his other followers wear. He knows he’s the villain here, seeming to sense in the boiling air that he’s already doomed. When Anderson looks around, he sees ghosts everywhere he turns. 

The unease spreads throughout the whole film. The film’s version of Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) is beset with dream visions, and an early song, “Then We Are Decided,”2 features Annas and Caiaphas (Kurt Yaghjian and Bob Bingham), the leaders of the Pharisees, brooding over what’s to come if they don’t take decisive action. In a typical Passion Play, Jesus is the only fatalist, gravely warning his followers of the suffering to come as he, personally, prepares for it. Here, that awareness is more evenly distributed amongst the key players, all of them facing down a fate they can’t sing or fight their way out of. Through all these scenes, anachronistic touches—Roman guards carrying machine guns instead of swords, small choices of language and wardrobe that don’t match the period—highlight the unreality of the staging, while the camera regularly defaults to an almost documentarian distance, showcasing the lack of any traditional set. 

The result is that this version of Jesus Christ Superstar feels like it’s constantly straining against its own confines, both the boundaries of the Biblical story upon which it’s based and the musical upon which it’s based. It’s inescapable, once you see it: these characters all want more than they’re being given, a longing that’s emphasized and highlighted by the collapse of any traditional fictive “reality” for them to play off of in their surroundings. They see their own failures and deaths on the horizon, and they long for alternatives that they already, on some level, know they can’t have.

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One of the most striking moments in Jesus Christ Superstar occurs during the song “Everything’s Alright,” which plays in the original recording as a tense and dissatisfying confrontation between Jesus and Judas, two pivotal men on the verge of having their final falling out. In the film, it plays more like the last embrace of a pair of doomed lovers. Jesus and his disciples are in a cave beneath the desert3, preparing to rest. Judas, stumbling upon the proceedings like he’s crossed over from a different world, lashes out, accusing Jesus of betraying his principles and wasting money by accepting lavish anointments. And here, in this moment, as Jesus tells Judas to appreciate him while he’s still around, they embrace, hands clasped, as the rest of the cast slowly pulls them apart. 

As a queer viewer, it’s hard not to read sexuality into this scene.4 Jesus, as played by Ted Neeley, is almost always ethereal, distant, separate in nearly every scene with other people in the movie. But not when Judas is around. In this moment, he’s present, engaged, even warm even as he’s fighting with Judas, even as they separate. And Anderson has a look of tortured awe on his face, a quiet unknowing desire and care for this man. There’s a sense that all these two want is to talk to each other, alone. But they can’t, circumstances won’t allow them to, so they fight, instead.  

Every time Jesus and Judas are together, it’s like this. When the pair talk again, at the Last Supper, the story takes one of its few major departures from the Biblical source material to give them a full-blown argument, a sung shouting match that ends with Jesus standing alone in the garden of Gethsemane, watching Judas go with the pain of an abandoned lover. When, right after, he sings his show-stopping number, a plea to God to allow him to escape his fate, it feels like he’s singing as much about the loss of Judas as he is his own death. 

It’s not that these elements didn’t exist in the musical beforehand. But the film works to highlight them, the performances of Anderson and Neeley turning each encounter between them electric and tragic. In a normal Passion Play, the climax of the story falls somewhere around Jesus’ trial and crucifixion itself. Here, those moments fall secondary to Judas’ betrayal and death. In fact, once Jesus and Judas separate, Jesus increasingly feels superfluous to his own story. He has only a handful of lines, becoming just a stoic stand-in for fate itself paraded first in front of first the Pharisees and then before Pilate, who spends most of their time together becoming increasingly frantic with horror over his inability to do anything but sentence this man to death.

This part of the story, so integral in the traditional telling, is extraneous to what Superstar is trying to do. Jesus’ death is a foregone conclusion. What matters isn’t destiny, but the way these characters sense it, fear it, flail for some way to fight against it. Not the fact that Jesus and Judas will ultimately end up separated and dead, the traitor condemned by history and the savior lauded. What matters is the longing on their faces when they’re driven apart. 

To be queer is often to feel like you’re straining against the boundaries of someone else’s story. Heternormative culture is bondage by narrative, a set of expectations and teleologies hemming in both those who want to adhere to that storytelling and those who don’t. In Jewison’s telling, Jesus and Judas are queer men stuck in a grand, cosmic story, only able to show their dissatisfaction with their lot via longing looks and tortured asides. This film is sympathetic to them, but it can’t do anything for them. The ending was written centuries ago. The only thing to do is play it out. 

Carl Anderson in Jesus Christ Superstar

When it does play out, Judas falls to his knees. Before trudging off to his death, he collapses into the hot sand. In this moment, Anderson plays Judas as a man coming fully to himself for a moment, understanding everything he’s done, how he got there, and what it means. He knows he’s the villain, a patsy in someone else’s story. And he’s heartbroken. He has the look of a man waking up from a terrible dream. 

“I don’t know how to love him,” Judas sings, choking on every word. It’s a reprise of an earlier, strangely out of place love song performed by Yvonne Elliman’s Mary Magdalene, that exists in this story largely to serve this moment. “I don’t know why he moves me.” He finally finds his feet, and stumbles away to his divinely mandated suicide, drunkenly chased by the specter of 2,000 years of hatred. 

But that’s not the last time we see Judas. He gets one final moment of grace from Jesus Christ Superstar: the title song, a cheesy, self-conscious rock number that threatens to completely overturn the musical’s sincerity. In it, he has a chance to berate a silent Jesus, ask him all the questions he wish had been answered in the course of the story proper. 

“Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand,” he starts, and then he goes big in the most fourth-wall-breaking way possible, asking Jesus why he chose the time period he did, what he thinks of other religious icons, etc., etc. It would be silly, but Jewison plays it as both glitzy and dramatic. Anderson descends from the sky, clothed in dazzling, fringed white like a disco-era angel, singing to a silent Ted Neeley as a gospel choir backs him up. All astride a desert ruin—a broken structure that looks like a coliseum, or a stage. It reads like the breakup letter you write but never send, a chance for this story’s most tragic character to get a reckoning. 

“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?” he sings. You get the feeling that he authentically, desperately wants to know. It means everything to him. It’s the only thing that means anything to him anymore. But there’s no answer. Jesus is silent, already gone, already dead. There’s no closure here for Judas. There never will be. 

The last moments of the film return to reality, as all the actors put the props away, get out of costume, and get back on the bus to go home. All, that is, except Ted Neeley, who isn’t seen again after his staged crucifixion, which occurs immediately after Judas’ final reckoning number. The last time we see Carl Anderson, he’s standing in the doorway of the bus, staring out at Jesus’ empty cross, set before the rising sun. Like he’s still Judas, on some level, still wondering if he did the right thing. Like he’s watching for someone who’s never going to come.

  1. “Passion Play” being the traditional term for a recreation of the last week of Jesus’ life, dating back to the Middle Ages. Typically, a Passion Play begins on Palm Sunday and goes through to Easter, depicting all the major events of that week in a roughly episodic fashion, religion’s own La Dolce Vita. Superstar follows in the tradition precisely, with the notable exception of not depicting the Resurrection.
  2. This is one of two songs added for the film, the second being “Could We Start Again, Please?” a rather interminable song that has the one benefit of showing Jesus slowly drifting away from the rest of the cast, disappearing and reappearing farther and farther out into the desert, as if being lost to fate itself.
  3. As a side effect of shooting in the desert, everyone in this film is shimmering with sweat in nearly every scene. It brings an earthy human vulnerability, and, in scenes like the one I’m about to talk about, only emphasizes the eroticism of the queer subtext.
  4. Whether this was intended, I can’t say. But it’s not an uncommon conclusion that the connection between this film’s Jesus and Judas goes beyond friendship. To give some indication of what the fandom for this movie looks like, I refer you to the immensely popular fanfiction website Archive of Our Own. Here, the film has 230 fanworks—quite a lot for a movie about Jesus from the early ’70s—and over half of them prominently feature a romantic or sexual relationship between Jesus and Judas.