A Little Music in the Night
Love him or hate him, Andrew Lloyd Webber is a phenomenon. His shows are on in 21 countries at any one time, and some are the longest running productions on Broadway and the West End. Here in Australia, Lloyd Webber has made some serious money. Jesus Christ Superstar had a stellar cast and a top 10 hit; Cats has been on stage and in a tent; and Phantom of the Opera did mega business with a two year national tour in the late 90s. Here, in my home town, alone there have been three school productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, and a pro-am production of Evita in the last 10 years (I was involved in this and one production of Joseph). Not all of Lloyd Webber work has been a huge success. Anyone heard of Jeeves?
Phantom of the Opera was written in 1986 and the score is a testament to that time period. Musically, Lloyd Webber writes for the masses. He creates simple melodies and disguises them with beefy accompaniments. Take the Phantom song 'Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again'; half of the chorus is sung on the same note. Play the melody sans words and accompaniment and it’s rather boring; much like most Pop music. This is essentially what Lloyd Webber is, the Pop Musical King.
Phantom is wildly accepted to be the most successful musical ever performed. Rob Guest, who played the Phantom in Australia, performed the role more than 1000 times. It is a huge production. Lavish costumes and sets make the whole show more wonderful to see. It is even more costly due to the damage it does to each theatre it appears in. The false proscenium, the stage mechanics of the huge sets, and most of all, the huge Chandelier hanging from the auditorium roof all result in major renovations for the theatre when the production’s run ends.
Bringing Phantom to the big screen has been a long time coming. In the end, Lloyd Webber had to cough up the $45mil to pay for it himself.
Signing on Joel Schumacher (Lost Boys, Batman & Robin, Phone Booth) as the director seemed an odd choice. The guy who killed the Batman series had shown no interest in taking on a musical and was stunned when Lloyd Webber approached him to direct. Unsurprisingly Schumacher is co-credited as the screenwriter with Lloyd Webber. There are some extra back-story scenes that fill out the Phantom’s story so we understand why he’s a psychotic masked man and have some sympathy for him. With so much artistic control being already taken up by Lloyd Webber, I wonder if Schumacher felt a little superfluous at times.
The plot structure had been reworked a little and some, but not a lot, of excess plot trimmed. Some of the details which make the Phantom more menacing were also removed. His ghostly appearances and the ‘possession’ of the onstage piano, for example, would have been little good things to leave in.
Working with a rigid plot structure imposed by a full musical score is going to be a challenge to bring to film. Phantom is a rock-opera, that is structured in the traditional two-act style. There is a big climax at the end of Act 1, everyone goes for drinks and a pee, and then come back for the story to get started again to build up to the final climax. The typical drop in plot momentum is a big problem for a film and today’s audiences aren’t patient. Once war is declared we want the battle, so I can understand why the major event at the end of Act 1 in the show was moved to the end of the film, but I was still rather stunned when it didn’t happen. The new climax still made the next half hour go so very slowly.
Schumacher didn’t really go to any new places in the direction. Choices of shots, angles and moves weren’t overly inspiring. Most taken from the standard looks of period films or music videos. Lots of bright spots flaring the camera lens, even in the basement! The rooftop sequence portrayed none of the space one feels when standing on the roof of a theatre, it was very cramped. For all the spectacle, the were no shots that made me go wow.
The real stars of this film are the sets and costumes. It is a necessity for any period film to top the last with the grandeur of the buildings and frocks, but Phantom takes it to the extreme. At no point is realism an issue. If you want realism, you’re watching the wrong film. The Paris Opera House is the central location (whether in, above, or below it) for all the action, and the Production Designer didn’t hold back. Adapting many major elements of the stage version and greatly expanding them to create a world that is a feast for the eyes; from the gold and marble foyer, to the red velvet and gold gilt auditorium with a large clouded dome featuring THE Chandelier. There is so much to take in, that a second viewing is likely.
The film opens with the auctioning of the contents of the dilapidated Opera House. When the Chandelier (Lot 666. Subtle.) is lit with electric lights the theatre begins a transformation to its’ glory days. The earth-moving chords of the organ pound through your chest the message that this is not a film about subtly. Everything is big and brash; and Lloyd Webber score is the biggest and brashest of it all. In fact, it is so big at times it is overpowering. The singers quite often get lost in the cacophony of noise.
It is at this point the orchestrations are revealed. I went in hoping that the orchestrations would have been reworked from the original recording I have. It is clear that some work has been done, but to keep the heavy synthesised feel of the major songs was a mistake. The digital sounding rhythm accents standout absurdly against the full orchestral sound. There was a digital clap sound as the Phantom takes Christine into the catacombs that was so out of place I snorted.
Casting Phantom would have been a nightmare. Trying to find a cast of actors who can sing, act, and move; that are not stars but experienced; and with the final decision not being the directors, but most likely Lloyd Webber’s. That’s without having to face up to the thousands of ‘Phans’ either. Casting actors who can sing the role is a no-brainer choice. If Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones-Douglas can warble their way through movies and not make complete idiots of themselves, then the cast of the ‘World’s Biggest Musical’ should be expected to do the same. But, the danger of having high expectations is easy disappointment.
Gerard Butler looks to be a good choice for the Phantom. Moderate success as the romantic lead in Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and other less popular films. Possibly a bit young, but the Phantom is meant to be a bit sneaky with his looks anyhow. The biggest question mark is whether he could master the huge range of that part. I believe it’s a two part answer. Yes, in that he made it his own. A more modern, rock Phantom. Going for the anger with a vocal coarseness rather than intensity of note. No, because he didn’t have the consistency to really give the vocal punch the Phantom needs to make songs like ‘Music of the Night’ truly memorable. And the rearrangement of some of the songs to avoid the tops is never a good sign.
Some of the supporting parts were reduced to speak-singing. Andre and Firmin, played by Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds, spoke many of their lines which lowered the musicality of the movie at times. Still, they are my favourite characters, and Callow and Hinds play with the absurdity of these two men superbly. Speaking of absurdity, Minnie Driver is perfect as the Diva Carlotta. Miranda Richardson as Madame Giry fit right into the scary dance teacher role, and her singing was a little scary, but her accent made all the difference.
Patrick Wilson as Raoul is the dashing, tall-dark-and-handsome, one expects, even if it is a very Hollywood version. Who’d have thought the closet-gay Mormon from Angels in America would surprise me with such a good voice. Raoul is always running an up hill against the Phantom’s power over Christine, and Wilson does well in some of the derisory circumstances the story presents.
The stand out performance is, of course, Emmy Rossum as Christine. She was only 17 during the filming of Phantom, and proves that you don’t need the extra years to be able to portray the emotion of 16 year old Christine. A performer with the New York Metropolitan Opera since she was 6, Rossum has had the vocal training that made her performance stand out against all others. The purity and lightness of her voice was a good contrast to Butler’s harsh, coarse sound, and her duets with Raoul were some of the films best moments. During Christine’s opening aria, ‘Think of Me’, I was concerned when the coloratura at the end was trimmed down. I feared Rossum didn’t have the range to sing the end section of the song ‘Phantom of the Opera’. All fears were allayed when she hit that top C like it was nothing at all.
A problem I had with the three main actors was their accents. I don’t believe it is an unreasonable expectation to have American actors perform convincing accents when playing non-Americans. I accept that it would not be impossible to come across an American in the Paris Opera House, but it is unlikely that the daughter of a famous Violinist who was raised in France would have a distinct American accent. The worst symptom of this was some of the odd vowel pronunciations by Rossum and Butler. There were a number of jarring words that sounded very out of place.
With so much going on, singing, music, movement, and choreography, it could be forgiven that the acting seems a bit wooden. There are many times when the actors are overshadowed by the amazing sets and costumes that they look like the dolls in the Phantom’s theatre model. Add some of the very dated lyrics and there were a couple of moments of seriousness that were rather silly. Perhaps if Schumacher had applied a real sense of style and driven everything in that one direction Phantom may have turned out to be a classic film.
I may appear that I’ve been rather hard on this film. I wanted a truly memorable experience. I did get that, I’m still humming the tunes two days later, but I am disappointed at the lack of attention to detail in the vocals and sound in general.
Overall I really did enjoy Phantom. I’m a sucker for spectacle in all it’s forms and Phantom lathers it on. Rossum’s voice is amazing and she looks stunning. If you love the show, you’re likely to love the film. If you hate the show, why have you read this incredibly long post? If you like to see people burst into song midsentence, go see it and enjoy.