When George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) came out with his “Messiah,” it was condemned by the church in his adopted England, as well as his native Germany. How dare he use Jesus Christ as the subject of popular entertainment?! Andrew Lloyd Webber ran smack into the same kind of Bible-thumpers when his “rock opera” (lyrics by Tim Rice) came out on Broadway. Even the Pope spoke against it at the time; turned into a movie in 1973.
It portrays the final seven days in the life of Jesus Christ, from his joy-filled arrival in Jerusalem to the trial and crucifixion. Filmed on location in Israel by some of the same Broadway cast, nominated for 1973 Academy Award for best original song score or adaption. The guy who played Judas (Carl Anderson) researched the role himself based on all available material and continued to play the role all his life in presentations of the play (he died 2-26-04, the day after Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ was officially released on Ash Wednesday 2-25-04). Carl Anderson almost wasn't given the movie role due to being pigmentally challenged (that means: "black"). Ted Neeley (Jesus) played understudy to Jeff Fenholt on the first Broadway run in 1971. Kurt Yaghjian, (Annas in the movie) strangely enough, understudied Judas on Broadway.
Leonard Maltin says, “It’s not everyone’s cup of religious experience, but certainly innovative.” The Golden Turkey Awards by Harry and Michael Medved says:
Since the beginning of the motion-picture industry, Hollywood moguls have noted the worldwide popularity of Jesus Christ and tried to capitalize on it for their own ends. The problem was that many of these attempts provoked charges of blasphemy and bad taste. Cecil B. De Mille seemed to find a successful formula in his silent classic, “King of Kings,” but that film nearly ruined the career of its star, H.B. Warner. After his appearance as the Man from Nazareth, producers felt uncomfortable casting him as a mere mortal . . .
To offer the public a walking, talking Jesus seemed to be asking for trouble. So began the holy tradition of presenting Christ in Biblical epics as a long-haired bit-player with his back turned to the camera (as in Ben Hur) . . .
Not until the 1950s, with the production of a church-sponsored film called “Day Of Triumph, did Jesus show his face in full view in a major Hollywood talking production. This is one movie breakthrough that should never have been made. What followed was a series of mindless assaults on religious sensibility. Christ may forgive the stars and producers of these films (including Jeffrey Hunter of Star Trek as Christ in a 1961 remake of “King Of Kings” that one reviewer called “I Was A Teenage Jesus”) but we, the viewing audience, cannot.
In preparing the big-budget film version of this celebrated rock opera, the producers toyed with a number of unconventional casting ideas. Originally Mick Jagger was supposed to take the part of Jesus. Then David Cassidy was proposed, and finally, John Lennon. After all, hadn’t Lennon stunned the world years before with his announcement that the Beatles were more popular than Christ? When none of these big-name rockers panned out, the producers finally settled for Mr. Ted Neeley — a third-rate warbler from Ranger, Texas, who had done his time in L.A. supper clubs and Grand 0l’ Opry warm-up bands before landing this, his big break. Neeley was so conscious of this rare opportunity to display his acting skills, that he is on the verge of hysteria most of the time he appears onscreen. His performance is enough to make us wish that the filmmakers had gone with John Lennon — or even Ringo Starr. As Paul D. Zimmerman observed in Newsweek, Neeley’s “Jesus often recalls Charles Manson.” He shrieks, pouts, grits his teeth, rolls his eyes, and twitches intermittently. As Bruce Williamson of Playboy enthusiastically declared, Neeley’s “portrayal of Christ ought to fix him permanently in public memory as the Screamin’ Jesus.” In one memorable scene, he grimaces and whines as hundreds of lepers, covered with slimy rag outfits, crawl out from their caves begging to be healed. His obscene and idiotic portrayal is only occasionally overshadowed by Carl Anderson’s performance as Judas. At one point, this black singer-actor, dressed in a sparkling white disco outfit, boogies down to the beat of the song “Jesus Christ Superstar” while his dancing soul sisters in silvery bikini tops magically appear behind him. To complete this feast for the eyes, a series of bright neon crosses appear, and begin waving back and forth in time to the music. Small wonder that Newsweek granted this film immediate recognition as “one of the true fiascos of modern cinema.”
Neeley richly deserves (the Golden Turkey) award, but it should be recognized that he received plenty of help from his director, Norman Jewison. In an interview in Playboy, Jewison spoke movingly about his approach to this classic bad film:
“We could have been vulgar. We could have played this for cheap. Nothing simpler. Guaranteed socko at the box office. We could have been really filthy. But we weren’t. For instance . . . half the apostles are gay, right, and what about Jesus and Judas? . . . A big, wet smackeroo, right on the lips. How about that? Oh yeah, we could have been vulgar all right. We could have milked it for every grab in the book. But we didn’t. Instead, we decided to make it beautiful . . . We made it into a spiritual experience and it’s beautiful, and Jesus is beautiful, the kids are beautiful, it’s going to be a beautiful film. People are going to see it in drive-ins and neighborhood nowhere theaters and they’re going to be moved by it. People who were never moved by this story before. People who always thought that Jesus Christ was some kind of schmuck. They’re going to see something beautiful and they’re going to cry. They won’t be able to help themselves When you really come to think of it, we’re doing Him a favor.”