This weekend, as you search for a movie to watch, you can either rewatch NBC’s live remake of The Sound of Music or pick one of approximately 14 billion options available on streaming over a variety of services, be it Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, On Demand, or other sites. Every Friday, Vulture tries to make life easier by narrowing it down to a handful of heartily recommended options. This week, we’re singing the praises of a nineteenth-century opera, a stage-film hybrid, and a movie that turns the Bible into a bundle of rock ballads.
Jesus Christ Superstar
Cats composer Andrew Lloyd Webber isn’t the controversial type, but when he teamed up with lyricist Tim Rice for a musical based on the last week of Jesus Christ’s life, the outrage poured in. In the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar, by In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair director Norman Jewison, Jesus is presented as a leader rather than a messianic son of God, Judas is a sympathetic accomplice to a larger plan, and the backdrop is sprinkled with anachronistic modernisms. The film opens with what appear to be protestors staging a re-creation of The Passion. Later, tanks and jets stand in for the Roman military. Even today, the Vietnam War lingers in the background. Jewison’s film stars many of the Broadway actors — and it’s for the best. Jesus (Ted Neeley) and Judas (Carl Anderson) let’er rip in their big numbers, their wailing rock vocals cutting through the usual stuffiness of prerecordings. That grit allows Jesus Christ Superstar to achieve what it sets out to do: tell the story of a man. (Available for Netflix, Redbox Instant)
Stephen Sondheim’s musical comedy would make for a tricky film adaptation (though famed screenwriter William Goldman once hoped to produce one). The show is blissfully theatrical, following Bobby, a 35-year-old commitment-phobe, through a series of conversations with his married friends and short-lived significant others. It’s not a showstopper-filled jaunt; emotions run high in Company, while the songs and occasional dance numbers pop up like monologues. In 2006, the theatrics were pushed even further in a Broadway revival that tasked the ensemble to perform their own instruments while onstage. It remains a definitive version — and thankfully, someone taped it. Starring theater scene staple Raúl Esparza, the filmed version of Company finds all the right angles to preserve director John Doyle’s choreography, while enhancing it with close-ups that are hard to come by from theater seats. Watching Esparza accompany himself on piano for the show’s final number, “Being Alive,” is the answer to anyone wondering how the heightened reality of stage musicals can still pack a punch. Bonus: For those looking for a more star-studded affair, there’s a filmed version of a 2011 concert performance of Company starring Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Craig Bierko, Patti LuPone, Jon Cryer, Christina Hendricks, and Martha Plimpton that’s also streaming. (2006 version available for Netflix, 2011 version available for Amazon Prime, Hulu)
If you can get past the problems inherent in using white actors to lampoon the political misadventures of a Japanese city, the 1939 adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s farce is an eye- and ear-catching production. Over 125 years after it debuted onstage, The Mikado remains a topical satire (a testament to modern government’s penchant for mismanagement), weaving together plots of romance, hierarchical scheming, and execution through the composing duo’s sharp wordplay and assaultive staccato. Gilbert and Sullivan’s own opera company mounted the film version, the sprightly performances matched by lavish sets, a full spectrum of costumes, and gorgeous Technicolor photography. It’s almost like a musical Dr. Strangelove; extravagance leads to inflated egos that inevitably pop. While the officials of Strangelove bicker, the characters in The Mikado duke it out in song. (Available for Amazon Prime, Netflix, Redbox Instant)