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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) - Plot Summary Poster

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Summaries

  • Film version of the musical stage play, presenting the last few weeks of Christ's life told in an anachronistic manner.

  • Based on a concept album project written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and the subsequent long-running Broadway performance, this film tells the story of the final 6 days in the life of Jesus Christ through the troubled eyes of Judas Iscariot. Too often mis-labeled a musical, this film is a "rock opera." There are no spoken lines, everything is sung.


Spoilers

The synopsis below may give away important plot points.

Synopsis

  • The camera pans across a landscape of desert hills dotted with stone ruins ("Overture"). A plume of dust in the distance resolves into a red and white bus that stops and disgorges a troupe of actors. The actors unpack costumes and props, including a large wooden cross. They dance around Ted Neeley, who will play Jesus, and dress him in a white robe. The actors, some still dancing, deploy themselves around the ruins of what might have been a temple.

    As Jesus talks with a group of followers, Judas (Carl Anderson) watches from a distance and worries ("Heaven on their Minds"). He's afraid that Jesus is beginning to believe what people are saying about him -- that he's God. He's also afraid that Jesus' followers will turn on him when they find that he isn't God, and that the Romans who occupy Judea will come down on them if they perceive Jesus' growing following as a threat to their rule.

    In the cave where Jesus and his followers are staying, the apostles ask when they're going to Jerusalem ("What's the Buzz?"). Jesus puts them off ("Don't you try to think ahead / Save tomorrow for tomorrow / Think about today instead"). Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman), seeing that Jesus is hot and tired, tries to soothe him by bathing his face with cool water, which Jesus appreciates ("She alone has tried to give me / What I need right here and now"). Judas steps in to say he thinks it strange "that a man like you / Can waste his time / On women of her kind." Jesus responds angrily ("Who are you to criticize her?") ("Strange Thing Mystifying").

    Caiaphas (Bob Bingham) the high priest discusses Jesus with his associate Annas (Kurt Yaghjian). Like Judas, Caiaphas believes that Jesus' popularity will bring down the wrath of the Romans. He mentions talk of crowning Jesus king. They agree to take the matter to the priests' council ("Then We Are Decided").

    Back at the cave, Mary sings to Jesus to relax him ("Everything's Alright") and rubs ointment on his head and feet. Judas interrupts to scold Mary for wasting money on expensive ointment when it could have been used to help the poor. Jesus points out that they can't help everyone ("Surely you're not saying / We have the resources / To save the poor from their lot? / There will be poor always, / Pathetically struggling. / Look at the good things you've got!") He adds that he'll soon be gone, a warning that no one but Judas seems to notice.

    In council, Caiaphas tells the other priests that Jesus is a danger to the nation, concluding "Like John [the Baptist] before him / This Jesus must die" ("This Jesus Must Die").

    Jesus is carried into Jerusalem by cheering, palm-waving crowds ("Hosanna"). Caiaphas advises Jesus to disperse the mob because they're too loud. "Nothing can be done to stop the shouting," Jesus replies joyfully; "If every tongue was stilled the noise would still continue / The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing."

    Later, in a big dance number, followers led by Simon Zealotes (Larry Marshall) tell Jesus how much they love him; at first he smiles at the crowd and laps it up. Simon urges Jesus to "Keep them yelling their devotion / But add a touch of hate at Rome" ... "You'll get the power and the glory / Forever and ever and ever" ("Simon Zealotes"). Jesus loses his smile while Judas looks on anxiously; this is the sort of thing Judas most fears. Some Roman soldiers march up and stop to watch, but Simon and his crowd are too wrapped up in their hero worship to notice. In a somber mood, Jesus tells the people -- and Mary, who kneels at his feet -- that none of them understand power and glory, and "To conquer death / You only have to die" ("Poor Jerusalem"). Simon is deeply puzzled.

    Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen), a Roman official, sings of a dream in which he met "a Galilean, a most amazing man. / He had that look you very rarely find, / The haunting, hunted kind." Pilate foresees that he'll be blamed for the death of the Galilean in his dream ("Pilate's Dream").

    Jesus visits the temple, which is like a modern-day flea market with modern-day merchandise (postcards, hand grenades) -- plus money lenders, of course. And prostitutes. Becoming angry ("My temple should be a house of prayer / But you have made it a den of thieves!"), Jesus runs around dumping tables and knocking over stalls ("The Temple"). Judas, again, watches in dismay. The vendors and customers flee. Jesus walks off into the hills, perhaps to calm down, but is accosted among the rocks by a crowd of the blind, halt, and sick, who beg to be healed. At first he reaches out to them, but he's unable to help them all and the mob seems to swallow him. He finally screams "leave me alone!"

    Meeting Jesus as he walks back to their camp, Mary wraps him in a tattered blanket and sings to him as he lies down under a tent ("Everything's Alright (Reprise)"). As he sleeps, she muses about her love for Jesus, which confuses and frightens her ("I Don't Know How to Love Him"). "I'm the one / Who's always been / So calm, so cool / No lover's fool ... I never thought I'd come to this."

    Judas seems to be agonizing over something; he squats in an empty landscape, letting sand run through his fingers. When a row of Roman tanks appears over the crest of the hill and bears down on him, he runs to the temple. He's there to betray Jesus, but tries first to explain his motives to the uninterested priests ("Damned for All Time/Blood Money"). All they want to know is where the soldiers can find Jesus at a time when he's not surrounded by crowds. Caiaphas offers Judas a fee ("We'll pay you in silver / Cash on the nail"), which Judas turns down ("I don't want your blood money") until Caiaphas points out that Judas can give the money to the poor -- he knows exactly which buttons to press. Judas takes the bag of money and says that Jesus will be in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night.

    In the Garden of Gethsemane, the apostles are feeling mellow ("Look at all my trials and tribulations / Sinking in a gentle pool of wine") and Jesus is feeling sorry for himself -- not without reason, given what he seems to know is about to happen to him. "For all you care, this wine could be my blood," he says. (His petulance is a brilliant way to explain the rather odd, cannibalistic ideas behind the Eucharist.) He goes on to predict that "one of you here dining" will soon betray Jesus and another will deny knowing him. Judas exchanges some bitter words with Jesus before going off to bring the soldiers. The remaining apostles fall asleep and Jesus asks, "will no one wait with me? Peter? John? James?" ("The Last Supper").

    Jesus goes for a walk to commune with God ("Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)"). He asks whether he has to go through with his death, and asks to know the reason for it ("You're far too keen on where and how / But not so hot on why"). If God replies, it's not evident.

    Judas comes back with soldiers and identifies Jesus for them with his famous betraying kiss. Peter and the other apostles wake up and offer to defend Jesus ("Hang on lord, we're gonna fight for you"), but Jesus tells them "it's all over" and to "stick to fishing from now on" ("The Arrest"). The soldiers march Jesus back to the city, attracting a crowd as they go. Curious bystanders and journalists question him as he walks ("Do you think that you may retire? / Did you think you would get much higher? / How do you view your coming trial?"). Jesus doesn't answer. The soldiers take Jesus to Caiaphas, who asks if he's really the son of God. Jesus doesn't deny it, only replying "that's what you say." The crowd demands, "take him to Pilate!"

    Peter, Mary, and another disciple stop at a camp along the road for water. A woman, a soldier, and an old man all recognize Peter ("you were with that man they took away"), but each time Peter claims not to know Jesus ("Peter's Denial"). Mary says sadly, "It's what he told us you would do. / I wonder how he knew."

    Jesus is frog-marched into the presence of Pilate, who makes fun of him, asks him if he's really king of the Jews, and dismisses his case to Herod ("Pilate and Christ"). King Herod (Josh Mostel), surrounded by wildly costumed, dancing courtiers, twits Christ in his turn. In "King Herod's Song (Try It and See)", he offers to let Jesus go if he'll perform a miracle. ("Prove to me that you're divine -- / Change my water into wine!") When Jesus fails to respond, Herod declares him a fraud and sends him away.

    Mary Magdalen and Peter, standing on a stark mountainside overlooking the desert, wish for things to go back to the way they were before Jesus was arrested ("Could We Start Again, Please?"). They're backed by a crowd of followers. Jesus (who isn't really there, of course) turns and walks off into the desert.

    Soldiers throw Jesus into a pit, where Judas peers down at him until he's pushed away by a guard. Judas goes back to the priests to complain about how badly Christ has been treated, saying he'd save him the suffering if he could. Annas and Caiaphas tell Judas that events have unfolded just as he predicted, and "What you have done / Will be the saving of Israel." Judas isn't comforted and continues, in a song that includes a brief reprise of "I Don't Know how to Love Him," to berate himself for the betrayal. Overcome with remorse, Judas hangs himself from a tree ("Judas' Death").

    Jesus is taken back to Pilate, where the priests ask that Jesus be sentenced to death ("We need him crucified / It's all you have to do"). Pilate resists, saying Christ has committed no crime worthy of death and asking Jesus to defend himself. The crowd gets so agitated that Pilate agrees to flog Jesus ("Trial Before Pilate (Including the 39 Lashes)"). But it's not enough. Faced with an incipient riot and Jesus' insistence that nothing Pilate can do will prevent his death, a frustrated Pilate says "die if you want to, you misguided martyr!" and washes his hands.

    In another fantasy sequence, Judas descends from a star (lowered by a visible crane) to speak to Jesus, who is alone in the amphitheater where the trial was held. Judas points out that Jesus could have spread his message more easily if he'd come today ("Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication"). He asks Jesus why he chose "such a backward time / And such a strange land?" ("Superstar.")

    On a hilltop where two men have already been crucified, soldiers are pounding nails into something on the ground. They raise a cross on which Jesus is hanging, crowned with thorns. They jeer, but Jesus asks God to forgive them. A few of Jesus' followers, including a grief-stricken Mary, watch from below. The soldiers raise a ladder and nail a board to the cross above Jesus' head. It's just possible to make out the letters INRI on the board; they stand for Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum -- Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews. Jesus asks, "my God, my God, why have you forgotten me?", and says "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." He dies.

    As the film ends, the performers, out of costume, reboard their bus. Last come Yvonne Elliman (Mary) and Carl Anderson (Judas); there's no sign of Jesus. Ted Neeley stripped away his costume and disappeared into the cast beforehand. The bus drives off. The final shot shows the empty cross against a setting sun, as a shepherd and his flock cross the hillside ("John 19:41").

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