Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera

There are actually quite a few things I like about this adaptation.  Even though Evita was the more successful of the two Andrew Lloyd Webber movie musicals, I find myself coming back to The Phantom of the Opera more often.

Not because I'm a huge fan of Phantom.  While I nearly wore out the CD when I was 15, I came to dislike the hackneyed lyrics, bombastic score, and incoherent ensemble numbers.  In total, there are maybe three songs I really like from the musical: "Masquerade," "The Point of No Return," and, of course, "The Phantom of the Opera."  "Music of the Night"?  Pretty, but bored me on subsequent listens.  The same with "All I Ask of You," a very similar song.

And it's not because the film version of Phantom is so ambitious or well executed.  Evita was the much more ambitious film, and in many ways it succeeded in its goals of being a grand epic.  Phantom, on the other hand, seemed to have no goals larger than transposing the musical onto the screen.  Any tinkering with the story or songs was very modest.  And while Evita was promoted for months as a potential Oscar contender, Phantom all but sneaked into the theatre.  At least that's how it felt to me at the time.  When I went to see the movie back in 2004, I could not recall any major promotion.

If I like the movie version of Phantom better than Evita, or at least find it easier to sit through, it is because of the characters.  With Evita, if you don't connect with Eva Peron, you're sunk. Who else is there to identify with?  Che the shape shifter or Peron the adoring spouse?  You're following Eva on her journey and if you don't like it, too bad.  Phantom imposes a similar requirement -- fear and pity the Phantom! -- but if you don't, you can at least care about Christine and Raoul.  And fortunately, whatever their shortcomings, I do.

I hardly need to provide background for Andrew Lloyd Webber's most famous musical, but just in case: The Phantom of the Opera first appeared in 1909 as a novel written by a French author Gaston Leroux.  Since then, it was adapted to the screen countless times, until in the mid-1980s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to adapt the story for a musical.  That musical premiered at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in 1986, starring Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Sarah Brightman as Christine.  It went on to be a huge smash, and starred many notables in the Phantom role, including Colm Wilkinson in the Toronto production.  (Bit of trivia: Wilkinson was the first to sing the Phantom role at the Sydmonton preview in 1985.)

The story starts with an orphaned chorus girl (Christine) at a celebrated Paris opera house being visited by a mysterious "teacher."  This teacher trains her how to use her voice to maximum effect, and soon she is blowing the competition away.  However, the teacher -- in reality, a deformed genius who hides beneath the opera house -- has fallen in love with her and is extremely possessive.  When Christine reunites with her childhood friend, Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny, all hell breaks loose.  Eventually Christine persuades the Phantom to let her and Raoul be together.  By the time the harried denizens of the opera house track the Phantom down to his lair, he has disappeared.

At least that is the story as told in the musical.  The novel is a bit more action oriented, with a lot more time spent explaining the various booby traps the Phantom set up in order to prevent people from finding him.  There is also a character known as the Persian, an old acquaintance of the Phantom's.  In the musical, his role is largely taken over by Madame Giry.  

So now that the introduction is over, let's start with what I liked about the Phantom movie.

The Good

First, I like many of the characters on a basic level, which is no small thing.  That doesn't necessarily mean that all of the actors performing the roles succeed, but there are some good performances as well.

On a basic level, I like Emmy Rossum as Christine.  Many might question whether she has the vocal chops to pull off the role of "ingenue that took the opera world by storm," and some might criticize her acting as bland, but I think she projects a basic sweetness and vulnerability.  It is easy to forget, as we watch the Sarah Brightmans and Rebecca Caines and Sierra Boggess(es?) belt to the rafters, that Christine is supposed to be a young girl.  I think her singing is decent enough, though apart from the final minutes of "The Phantom of the Opera," she doesn't get much opportunity to showcase it.  I always found "Think of Me" to be pretty bland as far as numbers go, and it is not staged with imagination in the movie.

I also like Patrick Wilson as Raoul.  In many productions I've seen, Raoul comes across as an arrogant fop until the point where he must track down the Phantom.  Yet except for the long-haired wig he is forced to wear, there is nothing silly or foppish about Wilson's Raoul.  He seems strong and perceptive, and he can sing well.  He is maybe a little bit bland, but he also has two important qualities: he can hold his own in scenes with the Phantom, and he acts like he actually cares about Christine.  The second may seem like a given, but is not always so.  In the 25th Anniversary Concert, Hadley Fraser's Raoul is so consumed by his desire to "get" the Phantom that half of the time, he doesn't even seem to like Christine.  

Miranda Richardson gives a good, understated performance as Madame Giry.  In the stage version, the character is pretty flat, but Richardson does a good job softening her harsh edges and making her more three-dimensional without losing her basic severity.  She even makes speaking in a French accent seem like an aspect of her personality, as opposed to a bizarre quirk in a musical where ninety percent of the characters are French, yet speak with British accents.  Richardson's Giry gives the movie more dignity than it deserves.

Likewise, Jennifer Ellison is sweet and irrepressible as Meg Giry.  Minnie Driver makes for an amusing Carlotta, though it bugs me that they turned Carlotta into such a laughingstock that even her singing is atrocious.  Carlotta should sound like someone that audiences have been coming to see.  If she were horrible, she would have been replaced a lot sooner, and there would have been no tension over Christine getting chosen.

Besides many of the characters and performances, I like some of the changes made to the musical, tentative though they are.  The opening scene is great, and builds up anticipation for what is to come.  I like that they extended the "Overture" to give us more scenes of life behind the stage of an opera house.

I also like that the scene order was changed around a little, which provides more clarity and better narrative flow.  In the musical, there are two major instances where the characters stand around and sing over each other -- "Notes/Prima Donna" and following the Phantom's appearance in "Masquerade."  While "Notes/Prima Donna" was (unfortunately) left untouched, the part after "Masquerade" was, thankfully, mostly cut.  In its place is a lengthier origin story for the Phantom.

I like that the movie version makes a passing attempt at showing that it was not a hop, skip, and a jump down to the Phantom's lair.  The way was marked with traps that one had to be clever to avoid.  One scene shows Raoul frantically trying to escape a watery trap while a ceiling of spikes comes down on him.

I even think that moving the chandelier scene near the end works well -- it always seemed awkward and anticlimactic right before the intermission.  In the stage show, the chandelier is supposed to be so menacing when it comes down, but once it does, it just sort of sits there before sheepishly sliding back up to the ceiling.

Really, the movie works very well, up to a point.  It has its light, amusing parts; gives you an extended backstage view of the opera world; and it builds tension nicely.  The movie works right up until the point where the candles in Christine's dressing room blow out... and we meet the title character.

The Bad


In the novel, the Phantom (Erik), did not have a nose.  Joseph Buquet, the opera house's scene shifter, describes it with little exaggeration: "His nose is so little worth talking about that you can't see it side-face; and THE ABSENCE of that nose is a horrible thing TO LOOK AT."  Christine describes his face as follows: "Raoul, you have seen death's heads, when they have been dried and withered by the centuries, and, perhaps, if you were not the victim of a nightmare, you saw HIS death's head at Perros.  And then you saw Red Death stalking about at the last masked ball.  But all those death's heads were motionless and their dumb horror not alive.  But imagine, if you can, Red Death's mask suddenly coming to life in order to express, with the four black holes of its eyes, its nose, and its mouth, the extreme anger, the mighty fury of a demon; AND NOT A RAY OF LIGHT FROM THE SOCKETS, for as I learned later, you cannot see his blazing eyes except in the dark."

Buquet describes Erik's body as: "He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame," and "[h]is skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow."  Erik's mother was horrified by his appearance at birth.  He spent part of his life traveling in a freak show as "the living dead."  He was horrible and ugly.  One look at him could shrivel your soul.

So Andrew Lloyd Webber said: "I know!  Let's get Gerard Butler to play him."

Actually, first he thought of Antonio Banderas, which is equally disturbing.  Then again, it doesn't bother me so much that they wanted to restyle the Phantom as more of a Heathcliff than a ghoul.  It would have been an interesting interpretation to have a Phantom who thought he was hideous, but whom the rest of the world thought was okay.  The problem is that the movie never commits to that approach.  The lyrics remain unchanged, so all of the "Oh he's so hideous!" moments have been left alone.  Thus, we the viewers are supposed to believe that Christine and company are utterly repulsed -- repulsed! -- by a balding man with a bad skin rash.  There were probably worse-looking people walking the streets of Paris every day back then.  He even has a nose!

This might be forgivable if Butler as Phantom could actually sing.  He can sing passably, but the Phantom has to be able to sing.  There is little opportunity to showcase him as a "genius," otherwise.  Yes he lives in this elaborate underground world, but we never saw him build it.  He might as well have stumbled upon it during a chase through the sewers.  And the "opera" that he forces the cast to sing doesn't speak too well of his abilities.  There is no better way for the Phantom to display his amazing talent, as well as incredible hold over Christine, than through song.

Butler's Phantom brays and barks and strains his way through the songs, removing any soaring majesty from his character and any mystery from the setting.  Not that there was much mystery to begin with.  The Phantom leads Christine down a secret path to his lair that is about as mysterious as a car tunnel through a mountain.  The path is brightly lit in greens and golds, as opposed to the cool blue mist in the stage production.  Yes, you know something is wrong when the path to the Phantom's lair is more atmospheric on stage.

The whole sequence of the title song feels wrong.  Christine passes through the mirror in her dressing room into the Phantom's realm with this silly plastered smile on her face.  Then John Travolta -- I mean Butler's Phantom -- takes her by the hand.  Then he sings.  Oh dear God.  Ramin Karimloo has a brief cameo as Christine's father -- why couldn't they have substituted his voice?  They did that with Minny Driver's character and no one cared.  It's not as though it would ruin the authenticity, since everyone was miming to a pre-recorded track anyway.  And it's really obvious during this song that Christine is lip-syncing.  Then, the final blow?  They cut lyrics from the title song.  The title song.  They kept every boring note of "Prima Donna" intact, but shortened the title song.  And filled the gap with a hideous electric guitar.  What the fuck?  Ugh, I need to go watch something good now to dull the pain.

So the appearance of Butler's Phantom is when everything starts to go off the rails, but there are two major problems with the film.  Three, actually.  The first is Butler, the second is the production design, and the third is what I call "the silliness factor."

Regarding production design, the movie seems fine when it is in the world of pageantry and lights, but falls flat the minute the sets move underground.  The only time the movie manages to conjure up any darkness at all is during a flashback scene of the Phantom's youth, and that... see "the silliness factor."  Frequently when I watch the movie, I wonder what Phantom would have looked like with a director like Tim Burton behind it.  I know that Burton's Gothic noir sensibility has become a bit cliche, but I could see him turning the underground scenes into something truly special.  And, since he uses Johnny Depp almost reflexively, I think Depp would have brought a more ethereal quality to the Phantom role (and would probably have consented to be dubbed).

Then there is "the silliness factor."  This movie seems almost unable to contain moments of silliness in what should otherwise be serious scenes.  Or maybe it's more accurate to say that Joel Schumacher, the director, could not seem to recognize and discourage moments of silliness.  Christine's dopey expression as she crosses through the mirror looks silly.  Raoul singing with a rope around his neck during the climactic scene looks silly.  The child Phantom in the flashback runs around with a bag over his head like a Looney Toons character.  In each case, scenes meant to be intense are undermined.  Obviously there were some things -- such as Raoul and the rope -- that could not be changed, but Schumacher could have staged it differently.

The movie just gets so many small things wrong.  Even the editing frequently looks bad.  The music from "The Phantom of the Opera" plays as Christine approaches the cemetery.  Just as the music swells, you would expect to see a wide shot of her approaching the gates or her father's tomb.  Instead, the shot is slightly blurry and out of focus.  Maybe that's not the fault of the editing, but the cinematography.  Either way, it doesn't work.

I should give the movie credit for trying something different with the "future" scenes woven through, which are shot to look like an old silent film.  However, beyond the opening scene, they really don't do much, and even undermine the famous closing scene where Meg Giry finds only the Phantom mask.  Any "mystery" they provide was already sucked out of the movie by Butler's Phantom.

Conclusion

The Phantom of the Opera is proof of how important it is to cast every major role with the right actor.  Had the Phantom at least been good, a lot of the other problems I had with the movie would taken on much less importance.  But Gerard Butler is so, so bad.  Some people have said that his acting is good, but it is difficult to tell when he sings nearly every word.  Even if his acting is good, everything else about him is wrong, from his singing voice to his physical appearance.  I watch Phantom more frequently than Evita because of the things it gets right, but it always leaves me thinking about the movie that could have been.





6 comments:

  1. Phantom of the opera... What can I say, this was what lead me to the world of musicals and made me literally spend entire night listening to OST over and over again in many many school nights. So when the movie came out, my bar was set where as long as they produce something with the songs, I would be grateful! Even after listening to Les Miz, I still think POTO are more brilliant and astonishing. hahah.

    I agree with your comments with Fraser. OMG. I think he is really great singer/performer, but at 25th dvd, he was like a maniac cornering Christine with what he wanted. hmhm. no! Raoul should be gentle/warm. I couldn't stop murmuring "chilllllll outttt, RAOULLLLLL" while watching 25th.

    I was disappointed when I heard that it was Gerald instead of Antonios. In fact, I hated Gerald even further when i actually watched the movie. I couldn't feel any chemistry between christine and phantom. I always thought of their relationship to be something irresistible/destined.

    But again, I still loved the movie knowing that I can see/listen to POTO every day whenever I want. Such thought completely disappeared when I heard and finally got 25th anniversary POTO! I LOVEDx100000 Ramin as Phantom, just okay with Christine, still liked Fraser, but I definitely think that he could've been WAY BETTER!!!!!!.

    I enjoyed your posting!

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    1. Thanks!

      I agree about Fraser being a great singer/performer. Unfortunately, I feel as though apart from his performance as Grantaire in the 25th, he tends to be over-caffeinated. I thought he would be great as Javert, but from the clips I've seen, he seems way too hyper.

      Banderas might have provided better singing and more charisma, but for me, his casting would still have represented a misstep. He is too young, too attractive, and the rest of the movie would have been left unchanged, so I would still have been stuck with the discrepancy between his not-so-bad looks and the characters' "Oh he's hideous!" reactions.

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  2. I was nodding and laughing throughout this review. Yes, yes, yes. I was introduced to POTO via the original London cast tape back in the 1990s and wore the tape out. I had to get a CD just 'cause I played it so much. I was sooooo looking forward to the movie. I had liked Butler well enough in Harrison's Flowers (not a big part but anyhow)...it never occurred to me that he couldn't sing. I mean, they make movies to make money, right, and who'd go see a movie where the main character can't sing? And up til the Phantom showed up I maintained my delusion. The movie started off pretty well and I was sure it would be a winner...and then the Phantom showed up. Shallow of me, I suppose, but I got a bad feeling when I saw he wasn't wearing the hat I had loved so much in the stage version. But then he started singing. Good heavens! It was like Frank Sinatra's thin reedy voice in his early years combined with Mickey Rooney at his shrillest and most annoying. That was just in the "Phantom of the Opera" song. Then he did "Music of the Night" and I was ready to run screaming from the theater. And of course the coup de grace was when Christine "outed" him and he was just a guy who'd gotten some bad chemo drugs or something.

    Someone told me a long time ago that POTO is one of those things that can either be the story of a great love or a creepy stalker who lives in the basement. This was definitely the creepy basement guy story. I could have forgiven so much if he could only sing...but oh heavens...

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    1. Butler was so wrong for the role. There was nothing remotely mysterious about him, despite the movie's attempts to make you think otherwise.

      I realized, after I posted my Tim Burton comment, that a lot of people hated what he did to Sweeney Todd. I still think he would have done well with Phantom, though, which has a much simpler storyline, one that all but hinges on atmospherics to work properly.

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  3. I know you wrote this review ages ago but I just now got around to watching POTO the movie and the one thing that stood out glaringly is the lack of hideousness with which this Phantom was portrayed. They had ALL of Hollywood magic to draw upon. Mask-making geniuses like Michael Westmore for whom freakishly ugly is his bread and butter and Butler ends up with a few scars around the eye and some thinning hair. The 1925 Phantom's makeup trumps the modern one and Chaney's Phantom was only drawn on, no prosthetics except for the teeth(even Butler's teeth were nice!) It was like they didn't try; I can't figure that out!

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    1. I don't get it either. From what I've read, they wanted to go in a different direction -- create a Phantom whose ugliness was only in his head. But if they wanted Heathcliff, they should have made "Wuthering Heights, the Musical." The Phantom IS ugly and hideous; there's no avoiding it.

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