Vibe of the Month – April 2019: Jesus Christ, Superstar

The Vibe of Month series takes the mood inherent to each month of the year – derived from holidays, events, folklore, astrology, and pop culture sources – and connects it to my personal experience for that month via film, fashion, and art. It was started as a way to explore how each season affects our memories, lived experience, and the way we consume art and entertainment.

I grew up with both sides of my family committed to Roman Catholicism. As an adult, I haven’t kept up with any of the traditions, but every time April rolls around and Easter comes up, I can’t help but think of Jesus.

Easter is a big time for Catholics – almost like a second Christmas, only there’s an Easter Bunny instead of Santa and chocolates and candy instead of presents. There were a lot of rituals that my family participated in on and off – making Easter eggs; Easter egg hunts; baskets filled with white chocolate bunnies, Cadbury Creme Eggs, Kinder Surprise and pastel jellybeans. And of course, mass on Easter Sunday.

The mass was always the same, but would sometimes include reenactments of the Stations of the Cross to really emphasize the torture and drive home the point of his death. I didn’t notice it much at first when I was young – at that point, Easter was fun because I got to dress up and eat candy. But as I grew into a moody teenager, the rituals started to feel more annoying and morbid than inspired.

Any institution telling me how to behave was something that really annoyed me as a teen and, with my need to rebel, I started viewing the holiday more cynically.

“It’s just to sell cards and chocolates,” I declared to my parents as I ate the treats I had received from my grandmother. “What do rabbits have to do with Jesus dying?” I also asked, obnoxiously. When my mom got annoyed at me for eating meat on Good Friday – a no-no in my family that I had forgotten about as I made a can of chicken noodle soup to eat – I challenged her: “What’s going to happen, I’m going to hell?”

My annoyance was only compounded by the fact that every Biblical movie made in the ‘50s played all weekend, droning on in the background at each family gathering. There are only so many times you can watch The Ten Commandments (1956) before it starts to get really boring.

But despite my waning interest, I actually got really invested in a religious film in my teen years – the Jesus musical. While it was never one the films that my family put on at Easter Sunday (unfortunately), it’s one that I would try to find because it was the most fun. That’s why my vibe of the month for April is Jesus Christ Superstar (1973).

I mean, it’s really an anomaly for me. Not only is it a religious movie, it’s also a musical so it should, technically, have two strikes against it if I’m going by my own rules. I loved musicals growing up, but they never hold up for me. I was obsessed with Moulin Rouge (2001), but you couldn’t pay me to watch it now. But Jesus Christ Superstar is one I enjoy as both a film and a musical.

For one, I think the whole look of the film is really beautiful. It captures the traditional “look” of Biblical films, but strips it down. Instead of these huge, sprawling sets, it’s fairly bare bones (until the finale) with only minimal props and set decoration.

The costuming also has the same kind of tone – similar to other Biblical films, but also very of its time and more minimal than the grandiose costuming those big budget movies were known for – although Pontius Pilate has the most traditional look out of everyone, being a Roman governor and all.

It’s the tone of the film that cements it as a favourite in my heart. As someone who grew up in the church, it has a strikingly different take than what I was used to when it comes to Jesus.

The film is bookended by two sequences where the cast arrives and leaves on a bus. They’re all dressed of the time and have a total hippie quality about them, like a group of travelling performers. It helps ground the film in reality by breaking the fourth wall and adds a dreamy quality to the whole piece.

All the same parables were always told in mass and Sunday school and, as someone who bores easily, it was never that inspiring to hear the same story about the shepherd with 100 sheep and the one that goes missing over and over and over again as an argument towards why I should be Catholic.

Jesus Christ Superstar takes the messages of Jesus and sums it up in a way that doesn’t focus on the Stations of the Cross. Instead of having to spend most of the movie watching Jesus get tortured (like some films), the musical tries to focus on his acts as a healer and someone who questioned the level of power and authority that institutionalized religion had over the population. How revolutionary!

The film also shows his own doubts and fears. From this former Catholic, it’s the most human representation of Jesus I’ve ever seen, and that makes him more relatable.

But that’s actually one of the reasons a lot of religious people don’t like it, and it was criticized at its release for portraying Jesus as too human, and also for not including the resurrection. And this is just an example of why I’m not interested in religion at all after growing up in an environment that placed a lot of emphasis on going to church – if you’re not going to allow different viewpoints or perspectives, if you’re going to balk at an attempt to modernize an ancient text to make it more relevant and relatable in modern society, then you’re just interested in telling people how to think. That’s cultish behaviour.

I think one of the best parts of the film is the conflict between Judas and Jesus because it portrays Judas’ betrayal as a conflict of ideals and also, as a loss of faith in their mission. From the beginning of the film, Judas suspects that Jesus is starting to believe his own hype. He actively questions Jesus’ intentions in the titular song ‘Superstar’, singing that had he come in a more modern age his message would have been easier to spread and that he could have reached more people.

As an impressionable teen, that hit a chord. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s one that highlights the highs and lows of faith and religion. And for a lapsed Catholic, that will always be relatable.