Battle: Old Jesus vs New Jesus

by Tom Ingram

It’s that time again–time to dust off your best clothes, go to church for the first time in three months, and pretend you’re not getting a one way ticket to the other place when you die. That’s right, it’s everyone’s second favourite holiday of the year, Easter. People will gather from miles around to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And what could be more Christian than Andrew Lloyd Webber?

You know what I’m talking about. Only one of the greatest cultural achievements of modern man, Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a little known fact that there were actually two Jesuses Christ Superstar. There was the original 1973 movie, which everyone knows about, and then in 2000 there was a remake starring British UFO crazy Glenn Carter as God’s main man. It failed to make a mark, and hardly anyone talks about it anymore. I’m sure you’re all burning with that all-important question, which one is better? Well, as both a musician and Webber fanatic who rewatches these two as well as Joseph every April, I am uniquely qualified to comment on that.


Jesi

Ted Neeley’s bearded hippy Jesus is probably closer to the popular image of the prince of peace, but Carter isn’t too far off either. They’re actually both great in these roles, getting across the Messiah vibe very well. Carter seems to play up the homoeroticism between Jesus and Judas a little more, and Neeley isn’t as good a singer (and his accent is hilarious). It’s a tossup between these two, but ultimately, I’ll have to come down on the side of…

Winner: JC2000. Carter’s voice never grates on my nerves, and he has better emotional range as an actor. Ted Neeley’s Jesus is just too bland.

Music

It’s roughly the same score in both cases, but the two movies are miles apart in interpretation. The original is reminiscent of 70s folk music. There’s a lot of cheesy synth and guitar sounds that are difficult to take seriously. JC2000 is more rock and roll, with driving electric guitars. It’s also darker in tone, which affects the interpretation of the music. Both productions have some excellent singers, and some not quite so excellent. In general, JC2000 gets the musical numbers better, but there are a few notable exceptions.

Winner: JC2000. There may be a quirky, lovable feeling to JC73, but it’s too hard to take seriously and at times it’s simply bad.

Production Design

The difference in tone is never starker than it is here. JC73 is a lighter, more friendly-looking production filmed during the daytime in a desert. It uses the framing device of a play put on by a bunch of hippies, so the costumes are a little bit ridiculous. This is a selling point for some, who enjoy the movie for its camp factor. That factor is notably lacking in JC2000, which is filmed entirely on an indoor set which is kept dark most of the time (the lighting in this version is excellent). The Romans in this production use Nazi imagery, and the Disciples look like punk rockers. JC73 is colourful, JC2000 is mostly black with a lot of leather.

Winner: I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for in your Jesus. I think that Superstar is at its heart a serious story with a lot of depth to it, and I think that’s better served by the 2000 version. Webber seems to agree. So I’m giving this one to JC2000.

Supporting Cast

Both movies have excellent supporting casts, so we have to take them one by one:

Herod

One of the biggest numbers of the show is Herod’s song. It’s the only really funny moment in the whole thing, so you really need someone who can ham it up. JC2000 cast well-known British comedian Rik Mayall in the role. JC73 cast…some fat guy with no shirt. Compare this scene with this one. Mayall adds to the cheesy music hall feel of the tune. The other guy just recites his lines.

Winner: JC2000. No contest.

Pontius Pilate

Pilate has his good and bad points in both productions. JC73’s Pilate is more cruel, but he’s also more subtle and restrained with a broader range of emotions. On the other hand, JC2000 has a huge, physically imposing man playing Pilate, and he gets a little melodramatic at times. There’s a moment of genius in “Pilate’s Dream,” where Pilate shows a more human side before we see the armour-clad badass. JC2000’s Pilate is a human being caught in a difficult situation. But after that, he becomes every inch the cackling villain. It does seem to work pretty well, but I have to give this one to…

Winner: JC73. Despite the excellent rendition of “Pilate’s Dream,” JC2000’s Pilate is just too moustache-twirlingly overblown to take seriously.

Annas

Annas, the high priest’s assistant, is so different between the two versions that he might as well be a different character. In JC73, he’s an intelligent, slimy accomplice to Caiaphas, planning his every move and telling him exactly what to say. He works as the brains behind the whole Pharisee operation. He reminds me of Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings. JC2000’s Annas reminds me of the dehelmeted Darth Vader. His voice is freaky high and piercing, like Justin Bieber crossed with Satan. It’s delightfully creepy, and I have to admit that I like the songs he’s in better (compare “Jesus Must Die” in JC2000 and JC73). This Annas is not overly intelligent, but he makes up for it in cruelty.

Winner: JC73. We already have a freaky evil man in Caiaphas, so Annas is redundant in JC2000.

Caiaphas

Caiaphas is the primary villain, so he really needs to be creepy and have a big stage presence. The Caiaphas in JC73 certainly has a big hat, but as a villain, he’s awful. There’s no comparison to be made with Frederick B. Owens’ excellent rendition of the character. You simply can’t beat that voice.

Winner: JC2000.

Mary Magdalene

Both Marys are very well-done. No matter how you slice it, the song “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is tear-inducing, but I think that Yvonne Elliman’s rendition from JC73 has so much more emotional power behind it (compare it with the JC2000 version). It’s a close call, but it has to go to:

Winner: JC73.

Simon the Zealot

JC73’s Simon is barely a character at all; he just sort of appears for his big ensemble number and then fades into the background. He does seem completely unhinged, which is an integral part of the character, but he’s crazy in a way that’s more Unabomber than Hitler. I can’t see anybody actually following this guy. JC2000’s Simon would fit in right alongside the Sex Pistols. The powerful thing about this rendition of the character is that it’s so real–you can imagine that guy in real life at the head of a riot. The original Simon doesn’t work well as a leader of mindless zealots. And those dance moves. Ugh.

Winner: JC2000.

Judas Iscariot

Judas could go either way. Both versions of Judas get to the core of the character very well. I should note here that the Judas from Superstar is vastly different than the one from Christian mythology. In the Bible Judas is not just an antagonist–he’s the epitome of evil, a human with no redeeming features. In Superstar, Judas protests the use of the expensive ointment because people who are starving matter more than your feet and hair. In the original Bible story, he does this because he’s the man in charge of the collections plate and he likes to take a little bit off the top. Say what you will about canon and divine inspiration, but Webber’s more complex Judas makes a better narrative.

The original Judas seems like a decent person who’s simply worried about what will happen next. Of course he has to be secretive now and betray his friends, but it pains him every step of the way. The new Judas was always a little bit standoffish. The other apostles never liked him very much, but Jesus stuck up for him. That makes it all the more wounding when Judas betrays the group. This Judas becomes more truly desperate at the end before he hangs himself, and rages out more strongly against the heavens for using him. I happen to be one of those people who ships Jesus and Judas, and I think this relationship is more emphasized in the newer version.

Winner: Tie. Both interpretations of the character are remarkably well-done, and I don’t even want to choose between them.

Overall

JC73 managed to pick up a couple of wins in the supporting cast category, but overall the modern remake is by far the better version. It has better music, better design, and a more serious tone to it that I think the story deserves. JC73 remains a lot of fun, but there’s no question that it’s the inferior version of the musical. I now humbly await crucifixion at the hands of old-time Superstar fans. What do you think? New Jesus or Jesus Classic?

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