Absent Ian Gillan, it’s less of a Jesus Christ Superstar to me

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Recounts the last days of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, his betrayer. As Jesus’ following increases, Judas begins to worry that Jesus is falling for his own hype, forgetting the principles of his teachings and growing too close to the prostitute Mary Magdalene. After Jesus has an outburst in a temple, Judas turns on him.

Prior to last evening, the most recent time I’d viewed Jesus Christ Superstar (the film) was two decades ago, and maybe longer. I’m thankful that my friend Jay proposed a trek to Jeffersonville to see it again.

Whatever scant traces of theology have managed to sneak past this atheist’s innate bullshit filter owe entirely to the original Jesus Christ Superstar (Original London Concept) by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

It was a pop culture phenomenon at the time of release in 1970, when I was 10. Some of the songs were well known even in the Southern Hoosier wilds of my youth, but JCS didn’t begin to resonate for me until around 1974, when I borrowed the LP from a friend’s brother and made a cassette copy.

From that moment forward, I was hooked. Significantly, I hadn’t seen director Norman Jewison’s film, which appeared in 1973. A huge part of the original JCS’s appeal was the presence of Ian Gillan, as I was a rabid Deep Purple fan. Having Joe Cocker’s Grease Band behind Gillan mattered, and while I’d never heard of Murray Head or Barry Dennen, their takes on Judas and Pilate, respectively, influenced me deeply.

During the summer prior to our senior year, several of my beer-drinking compatriots and I would endlessly cruise the Knobs, popping tops and singing the parts, even scheming to convince our choral director Michael Neely to allow us to stage Jesus Christ Superstar as a choir project. I wanted to be Pilate.

Nothing came of it, but more than 45 years later, I know 90% of the lyrics to JCS, which says something about youthful immersion.

So, the film. The period vibe and location filming in Israel work wonderfully. Performances are in keeping with Lloyd Webber’s and Rice’s foundational libretto.

There is much to enjoy, and almost nothing to complain about—and if the name Philip Toubus doesn’t ring a bell, note that the actor who played Peter achieved renown using the name Paul Thomas, and performing in an entirely different cinematic realm (don’t worry; it’s just the Wikipedia link).

My point here isn’t exactly novel. Some years back a stage production came to Louisville, and it was worth the money. So was last evening’s 50th anniversary presentation of the film. But I came to JCS via the original concept album and absorbed the work entirely as self-contained music, and this is my gold standard.

If you entered through a different door, then that’s likely to be your yardstick.

Any imagery I could conjure at the time in the early 70s almost certainly was that of Gillan singing in front of a band, as he did with Deep Purple. Viewing the film prompts a visceral reaction to the music in me, as I internalized it back then, and it takes a special sort of focus to even regard JCS as a film, and not just a new group of singers (with the exception of Dennen and Yvonne Elliman).

Obviously individual results will vary. Jesus Christ Superstar (Original London Concept) (the “Brown Album”) unquestionably belongs in my all-time Top Ten as it pertains to albums. I enjoy the film, but guess which version I’m listening to right now?

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