Neeley and Anderson were nominated for two Golden Globe Awards in 1974 for their portrayals of Jesus and Judas, respectively. Although it attracted criticism from some religious groups, reviews for the film were positive.
The film is framed as a group of performers who travel to the desert to re-enact the Passion of Christ. The film begins with them arriving on a bus, assembling their props and getting into costume. One of the group is surrounded by the others, puts on a white robe and emerges as Jesus ("Overture").
This story begins with Judas (Anderson), who is worried about Jesus' popularity; he is being hailed as the Son of God, but Judas feels he is just a man who is beginning to believe his own propaganda and fears the consequences of their growing movement ("Heaven on Their Minds"). The other disciples badger Jesus for information about his plans for the future, but Jesus will not give them any ("What's the Buzz?"). Judas' arrival and subsequent declaration that Jesus should not associate with Mary dampens the mood ("Strange Thing Mystifying"). Angrily, Jesus tells Judas that he should leave Mary alone, because his slate is not clean. He then accuses all the apostles of not caring about him. That night at the Temple, Caiaphas is worried that the people will crown Jesus as king, which the Romans will take for an uprising. Annas tries to allay his fears, but he finally sees Caiaphas' point and suggests that he convene the council and explain his fears to them; Caiaphas agrees ("Then We Are Decided"). As Jesus and his apostles settle for the night, Mary soothes him with some expensive ointment, but Judas says that the money spent should have been given to the poor. Jesus rebukes him again, telling him that the poor will be there always but Jesus will not ("Everything's Alright").
The next day at the Temple of Jerusalem, the council of the priests discuss their fears about Jesus. Caiaphas tells them that there is only one solution: like John the Baptist, Jesus must be executed for the sake of the nation ("This Jesus Must Die"). As Jesus and his followers joyfully arrive in Jerusalem, Caiaphas orders Jesus to disband the crowd for fear of a riot. Jesus refuses and speaks to the crowd instead ("Hosanna"). Later, the apostle Simon Zealotes (Marshall) and a crowd of followers voice their admiration for Jesus ("Simon Zealotes"). Jesus appreciates this, but becomes worried when Simon suggests directing the crowd towards an uprising against their Roman occupiers. Jesus sadly dismisses this suggestion, saying that they do not understand His true purpose ("Poor Jerusalem").
Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, reveals that he has dreamed about a Galilean man (Jesus) and that he will be blamed for this man's death ("Pilate's Dream"). Jesus and his followers arrive at the temple, which has been taken over by money changers and prostitutes ("The Temple"). To Judas' horror and as the priests watch in the background, a furious Jesus destroys the stalls and forces them to leave. Jesus wanders alone outside the city, but is surrounded by a crowd of lepers, all wanting to be healed. Jesus tries to heal as many of them as possible, but is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and eventually gives up, screaming at them to leave him alone. Mary comforts Jesus and Jesus goes to sleep. Mary loves Jesus, but is confused because he is so unlike any other man she has met ("I Don't Know How to Love Him"). Judas goes to the priests and expresses his concerns, but he is worried about the consequences of betraying Jesus ("Damned for All Time"). The priests take advantage of his doubts and offer him money if he will lead them to Jesus. Judas initially refuses, but Caiaphas and Annas win him over by reminding him that he could use the money to help the poor. Judas reveals that Jesus will be at the Garden of Gethsemene on Thursday night ("Blood Money").
At the Last Supper (set outdoors in a garden setting during the day), Jesus reveals that he knows Peter (Toubus) will deny him and Judas will betray him. A bitter argument between Jesus and Judas ensues, in which Judas berates Jesus for destroying their hopes and ideals and threatens to ruin Jesus' ambition by staying there without helping him to reach the Glory; Jesus tells Judas to leave and Judas finally runs off ("The Last Supper"). As the apostles fall asleep, Jesus goes to Gethsemane to pray about his imminent death and reluctantly agrees to go forward with God's plan ("Gethsemane [I Only Want to Say]"). Jesus waits for Judas, who arrives, accompanied by guards, and betrays him with a kiss. The disciples offer to fight the guards, but Jesus will not allow it. Jesus is taken to Caiaphas' house, found guilty of blasphemy and sent to Pilate ("The Arrest"). Peter, meanwhile, fearfully denies Jesus three times after being accused of being one of Jesus' followers ("Peter's Denial"). Jesus is taken to Pilate's house, where the governor, unaware that Jesus is the man from his dream, mocks him. Since he does not deal with Jews, Pilate sends him to Herod ("Pilate and Christ"). The flamboyant King Herod is excited to finally meet Jesus, for he has heard the hype. He tries to persuade Jesus to perform various miracles. When Jesus refuses to answer, Herod orders the guards to take him back to Pilate ("Herod's Song [Try It and See]").
The apostles and Mary Magdalene remember how things began and wish that they had not gotten so out of hand ("Could We Start Again Please?"). Jesus is flung into a cell, where he is seen by Judas, who runs to tell the priests that he regrets his part in the arrest. He hurls his money to the ground and curses at the priests before running into the desert. Filled with regret for betraying Jesus, he blames God for his woes by giving him the role of the betrayor and hangs himself ("Judas' Death"). Jesus is taken back to Pilate, who questions him; Herod is also present. Although he thinks Jesus is deluded, Pilate realizes that he has committed no actual crime and has Jesus scourged; Herod is gleeful at first but eventually sickened. Pilate's bemused indifference turns to a frenzy of confusion and anger, both at the crowd's irrational bloodthirstiness and Jesus' inexplicable resignation and refusal to defend himself. Pilate realizes he has no option but to have Jesus executed or the masses will grow violent ("Trial Before Pilate [Including the Thirty-Nine Lashes]"). After Pilate washes his hands of Jesus' fate, Jesus' appearance transforms, the heavens open, and a white-jumpsuit clad Judas descends on a silver cross. Judas laments that if Jesus had returned as the Messiah today, he would have been more popular and his message easier to spread. Judas also wonders what Jesus thinks of other religions' prophets. He ultimately wants to know if Jesus thinks he is who they say he is ("Superstar"). Judas' questions go unanswered, and Jesus is sent to die ("The Crucifixion"), with ominous, atonal music, with Jesus saying some of his final words before dying.
As the film ends, the performers, now out of costume, board their bus. Only the performers who had played Pilate, Mary Magdalene and Judas notice the actor who had played Jesus is missing. A shepherd and his flock cross the hillside beneath the empty cross ("John Nineteen Forty-One").Ted Neeley as Jesus Christ
Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot
Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene
Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate
Bob Bingham as Caiaphas
Kurt Yaghjian as Annas
Josh Mostel as King Herod
Philip Toubus as Peter
Larry Marshall as Simon Zealotes
Richard Orbach as John
Robert LuPone as James
During filming of Fiddler on the Roof, Barry Dennen, who played Pilate on the concept album, suggested to Norman Jewison that he should direct Jesus Christ Superstar as a film. After hearing the album, Jewison agreed.
The cast consisted mostly of actors from the Broadway show, with Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson starring as Jesus and Judas respectively. Neeley had played a reporter and a leper in the Broadway version, and understudied the role of Jesus. Likewise, Anderson understudied Judas, but took over the role on Broadway and Los Angeles when Ben Vereen fell ill. Along with Dennen, Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene), and Bob Bingham (Caiaphas) reprised their Broadway roles in the film (Elliman, like Dennen, had also appeared on the original concept album). Originally, Jewison wanted Ian Gillan, who played Jesus on the concept album, to reprise the role for the film, but Gillan turned down the offer, deciding that he would please fans more by touring with Deep Purple. The producers also considered Micky Dolenz (from The Monkees) and David Cassidy to play Jesus before deciding to go with Neeley.
The film was shot in Israel (primarily at the ruins of Avdat, Beit Guvrin National Park, and Beit She'an) and other Middle Eastern locations in 1972.
Like the stage show, the film gave rise to controversy even with changes made to the script. Some of the lyrics were changed for the film. The reprise of "Everything's Alright", sung before the song "I Don't Know How To Love Him" by Mary to Jesus, was abridged, leaving only the closing lyric "Close your eyes, close your eyes and relax, think of nothing tonight" intact, while the previous lyrics were omitted, including Jesus's "And I think I shall sleep well tonight.". In a scene where a group of beggars/lepers overwhelms Jesus, "Heal yourselves!" was changed to "Leave me alone!", and in "Judas' Death", Caiaphas' line "What you have done will be the saving of Israel" was changed to "What you have done will be the saving of everyone."
The lyrics of "Trial Before Pilate" contain some notable alterations and additions. Jesus's line "There may be a kingdom for me somewhere else, if I only knew" is changed to "if you only knew." The film version also gives Pilate more lines (first used in the original Broadway production) in which he addresses the mob with contempt when they invoke the name of Caesar: "Well, this is new!/Respect for Caesar?/'Till now this has been noticeably lacking!/Who is this Jesus? Why is he different?/You Jews produce messiahs by the sackful!" and "Behold the man/Behold your shattered king/You hypocrites!/You hate us more than him!" These lines for Pilate have since been in every production of the show.
The soundtrack contains two songs that are not on the original concept album. "Then We Are Decided", in which the troubles and fears of Annas and Caiaphas regarding Jesus are better developed, is original to the film. The soundtrack also retains the song "Could We Start Again Please?" which had been added to the Broadway show. Most of these changes have not been espoused by later productions and recordings, although most productions tend to retain the expanded version of "Trial Before Pilate".
The film was very popular earning North American rentals of $10.8 million in 1973. Years later the film was still popular, winning a 2012 Huffington Post competition for "Best Jesus Movie."
The film as well as the musical were criticized by some religious groups. A New York Times review said, "When the stage production opened in October, 1971, it was criticized not only by some Jews as anti-Semitic, but also by some Catholics and Protestants as blasphemous in its portrayal of Jesus as a young man who might even be interested in sex."
Tim Rice said Jesus was seen through Judas' eyes as a mere human being. Some Christians found this remark, as well as the fact that the musical did not show the resurrection, to be blasphemous. While the actual resurrection was not shown, the closing scene of the movie subtly alludes to the resurrection (though, according to Jewison's commentary on the DVD release, the scene was not planned this way). Some found Judas too sympathetic; in the film, it states that he wants to give the thirty pieces of silver to the poor, which, although Biblical, leaves out his ulterior motives (see also "Everything's Alright"). Biblical purists pointed out a small number of deviations from biblical text as additional concerns; for example, Pilate himself having the dream instead of his wife, and Catholics argue the line "for all you care, this bread could be my body" is too Protestant in theology, although Jesus does say in the next lines, "This is my blood you drink/This is my body you eat".
In the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards by Michael Medved and Harry Medved, Neeley was given an award for "The Worst Performance by an Actor as Jesus Christ", yet Neeley and Anderson received Golden Globe nominations for their portrayals of Jesus and Judas in the film version and had subsequently gone on to recreate the roles in numerous national stage tours from 1993-2014 (2004 for Anderson, as he died of leukemia).
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"I Don't Know How To Love Him" – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
The soundtrack for the film was released on vinyl by MCA Records in 1973. It was re-released on CD in 1993 and 1998.
The soundtrack for the film was released in the USA on vinyl by MCA Records (MCA 2-11000) in 1973, as: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR / The Original Motion Picture Sound Track Album.
Remakes and related productions
Another film version was made for video in 2000, starring Glenn Carter as Jesus, Jérôme Pradon as Judas, and Reneé Castle as Mary Magdalene. It was shot entirely on indoor sets including graffiti on the wall. Composer Webber has stated in the making-of documentary that this was the version closest to what he had originally envisioned for the project. He chose Gale Edwards to direct after seeing her interpretation of the musical in Dublin, which featured a more modernistic and sinister approach than the original stage productions.
In a 2008 interview with Variety magazine, film producer Marc Platt stated that he was in discussions with several filmmakers for a remake of Jesus Christ Superstar.
In 2013, a Blu-ray "40th Anniversary" edition of the film was released, featuring commentary from the director and Ted Neeley, an interview with Tim Rice, a photo gallery and a clip of the original trailer.
In 2015, Neeley announced the upcoming release a documentary entitled "SUPERSTARS: The Making of and Reunion of the film 'Jesus Christ Superstar'" about the production of the film.