Saturday, December 8, 2012

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Evita

While I await my chance to see Les Miserables and hope that it's one of the movie musicals that "got it right," I thought it would be interesting to look at other musicals made in the last 15 years or so that didn't transfer so well to the big screen.

Back in 1996, I was absolutely foaming at the mouth in anticipation of the film version of Evita.  Somehow, I had fallen in love with the concept album and could not wait to see it up on the screen.  The massive crowd scenes and elaborate costumes convinced me that it would be EPIC.  And then there was Madonna, who was supposedly "born" for the role, being a charismatic pop star with a penchant for constantly changing her wardrobe.  What could go wrong?

For those completely unfamiliar with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which launched in 1978 following a concept album that was released in 1976, here is a little background.  Eva Peron was the second wife of Juan Peron, president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 (and also 1973 to 1974, but the musical doesn't include that time period).  The musical follows Eva Peron's rise from poor girl out in the sticks to a radio star in Buenos Aires, the "big apple."  There, she attracts the attention of the military, including Colonel Juan Peron.  The two become lovers, to the horror of the aristocracy and the military establishment, and then husband and wife.  Juan Peron, seemingly a man of the people, would become president with the help of the descamisados, or "shirtless ones."  However, instead of -- or perhaps in addition to -- helping the working class, the Perons embezzled money, sympathized with the Nazis, and brutally suppressed opposition.  Eva's European tour of good will was a bust, and then she became ill and died at the age of 33.

At least this is Eva Peron's life as told by the musical.  There is some controversy about its accuracy, as it was supposedly based on a book, Evita: The Woman With the Whip, which contained several exaggerations and false assertions.  Of course, what wasn't in the book was one of the musical's most distinctive characters, Che.  In early versions of Evita, Che was actually Che Guevara, the revolutionary best known for his role in the Cuban Revolution (and for adorning the walls of countless people who probably didn't know beans about his politics).  While in real life, we don't know what the Argentina-born Guevara really thought of Evita, in the musical, he stands in full khaki combat regalia, sneering at her from afar as a one-man Greek chorus.

After the Evita concept album, produced by the team Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, became a smashing success, Lloyd Webber created a stage version with Elaine Paige as Eva Peron and David Essex as Che.  The next year, in 1978, Evita moved to Broadway, where Patti LuPone performed the title role, Che was played by Mandy Patinkin, and Peron was played by Bob Gunton.  Many consider the Broadway cast album to be the "definitive" Evita because it is the first complete recording of the stage musical.  The London cast album contains just highlights, due to the fact that the full version of Evita was released on the concept album just a year earlier.

However, I never warmed to the Evita Broadway cast album.  Patti LuPone has power, but her voice is nasally and she always seems to slur the words together.  Most importantly, she has no subtly whatsoever.  Meanwhile, Mandy Patinkin is on the other end of the spectrum.  With a voice so clear and pure that he seems more suited for flowers in his hair than a combat beret, he is far removed from the gruff and grit of David Essex and the Che of the concept album, Colm Wilkinson.  And don't get me started on Bob Gunton.  Did the real Peron trill his r's?  I can't think of another performer before or since who did that, and for good reason -- it's damn annoying.

The concept album is also frequently referred 
to as the Evita "white" album.
It was the concept album that made me fall in love with Evita.  The title role was played by Julie Covington, who may not have had the best voice, but it sounds cold, clear, and expressive.  Her Evita could be coy one minute, then a ball of fury the next.  Her numbers are blasts of energy, particularly "Buenos Aires."  She also performs the best version of "Eva Beware of the City" that I have ever heard.

Covington is well-matched by Colm Wilkinson, who brings a rock and roll edge to the Che role.  It took me a few listens to recognize him (he is credited as "C.T. Wilkinson") -- in place of noble sincerity is a cutting sarcasm that laces every one of his songs.  The entire album is much more rock and roll than the stage show would be, and sounds a hell of a lot more fun to perform.  It also contains some tidbits that never made it to the stage -- specifically Che's "The Lady's Got Potential," where he compared Eva's rise to power to his creation of a new insecticide.  "Just one blast and the insects fall like flies!  Kapow, die!"  This little bit of acid trippery was derived from the real Che Guevara's scientific background.  Though it is a fun song, Lloyd Webber and company were wise to leave it out of the stage version, replacing it with the much more sedate "The Art of the Possible."  However, the song would receive new life -- rewritten -- in the film.

In fact, Lloyd Webber and Alan Parker, the director, would go back to the original concept album more than once when making the film.  If only they had stopped there.  Unfortunately, they also looked at the original source of the musical and decided to correct all of the unfair misconceptions of Eva Peron.  This led to a flawed musical with a singular vision being turned into a flawed movie with a muddled vision.

The Movie

1.  Acting

However, even very flawed pieces of work can be endearing, and grow more endearing with time, as long as there are other things about them that really work.  If the acting is fantastic, the emotions visceral, the problems relatable.  Unfortunately, very little of that is present in Evita.  It is very pretty... VERY pretty... but of the three principal cast members, only Jonathan Price as Juan Peron displays any sort of real acting ability.

What about Madonna, the one "born" for the role of Eva Peron?  She certainly makes a go at it... but her range of emotions seems to consist of one mildly pained expression.  Maybe it was the dark brown contact lenses.  Maybe it was the fact that she had to mime rather than sing the songs during the filming of a completely sung-through musical.  Or maybe it's because she's simply not an actress, no matter what her aspirations.  Though the moments where she is most effective are the ones where she sings live, such as "Eva's Final Broadcast."  There, she is able to coax at least some some emotion out of her face and voice.

Antonio Banderas has passion, but all he's really called upon to do is be sarcastic, bordering on angry.  One major problem is that the "Guevara" has been stripped from his name and his identity, leaving him as just Che the Everyman.  Unfortunately, no one bothers to make this clear within the movie.  So when Che follows around Eva, blasting her every decision, he comes across as an angry, stalking ex-boyfriend.  That lends a creepy air to a lot of their shared numbers, from "Goodnight and Thank You" to "A Waltz for Eva and Che."  And that misimpression is not pushed AT ALL in imagery like the DVD cover at the top.  Eva clinging to Che, as if to say: "I need you, Che!  I've been so bad!  Please tell me what to do!"  The biggest problem with Che the Everyman is it leaves him with no defining goals or interests.  At least when he was Che Guevara, we knew what he was about.  But Che the Everyman isn't simply a descamisado -- he is a shape shifter.  In one scene, he is dressed quite dapper at a garden party, while in another scene, he is dressed as a reporter.  I think that the production should have made Che an actual character, such as a reporter at a dissenting newspaper suppressed by the Perons.  That would explain his anger, and his "following her" through her life could actually be him researching her for a story.  But I digress.

Jonathan Price is a very understated Peron.  At first it seems like there is nothing there, but after an hour of Banderas's angry belting and Madonna's failed emoting, you come to appreciate Price's quiet looks of tenderness and appreciation.  Yet aside from this, there is very little real emotion in the movie.

Oh, but Alan Parker tries.  Oh how he tries to stuff as much emotion as possible into each frame.  Lots of close ups of teary, hopeful faces in the crowd.  Back when I first saw this movie, all ready to surrender myself to its splendor, my first inklings of doubt came during a flashback scene of Eva's father's funeral.  There, we got a close-up of little Eva's face, so innocent and devastated and OH MY GOD, I GET IT NOW!  EVA PERON IS A PERSON!  I DID NOT KNOW THAT, ALAN PARKER!!!

Another such "let me force you tell you what to feel" moment occurs during the big moment, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."  As Eva sings, the movie cuts away from her to flash back on earlier scenes of the movie.  Yes, Alan Parker actually thought that we would forget those stirring moments from a half-hour ago, so he decided to remind us what we should be feeling when we watch them again.  THANK YOU FOR TELLING ME WHAT TO FEEL, ALAN PARKER!!!  

I think the bottom line is that if you have to constantly manipulate the audience, if you can't trust the actors to convey what you want them to convey, then you have a problem.  Such was the case with Alan Parker and Evita.  It was a problem that, unfortunately, the singing could not overcome.

2.  Singing

Per the usual style, nearly all of the singing was recorded before filming began.  The only exceptions were scenes where the characters did not have to sound "pretty," such as Che falling down injured in the street, any scene where Eva is dying, or Peron defending Eva before a table of subordinates.  Otherwise, the prerecorded songs were piped in and the performers lip-synched... with frequently terrible results.

Perhaps the worst result can be heard in one of the early numbers, "Eva Beware of the City."  As I mentioned, it is one of my favorite songs from the concept album.  Julie Covington sings it with energy and gusto.  "I want to BE a part of B.A.  Buenos Aires, Big Apple!"  I was really looking forward to seeing the song play out on screen.  Alas, it doesn't come anywhere close.  Madonna's vocals have none of the energy and cattiness that made Covington's version so great, but that is not the worst part.  The worst part is the way her vocals, and the music, are delivered.  Evita's score is obviously not period-accurate, but from the music, you would have thought a spaceship was landing.  Meanwhile, the vocals are coming from everywhere but the performers' mouths.  It is especially painful and bad during the parts of the song that take place outside.  At one point Eva has to kneel down to put everything back in her suitcase and it is so obvious she is lip-synching and gahhhh.                     

Fortunately, that would be the lowest point with dubbed vocals.  It would look better in numbers like "Goodnight and Thank You" and "A New Argentina," if never completely natural.

As for Madonna's voice, it is clear that she worked with a coach to stretch her range, but that still leaves her very limited.  She is unable to belt in songs like "Rainbow High," and other songs have been drastically lowered to fit her range.  Her voice sounds blandly pleasant on the whole, no matter what the circumstances, except for a little welcome flint in songs like "A New Argentina" and "A Waltz for Eva and Che."

Banderas's singing harkens back to the roughness and grit of Colm Wilkinson rather than the soft, floating tones of Mandy Patinkin.  His voice has good range and power, and he sings his songs with verve.  Perhaps not coincidentally, he gets to sing the big rock-and-roll number, "The Lady's Got Potential," that only Wilkinson had ever before attempted.  That said, there is a flatness to Banderas's singing.  While Che is not well developed, there are places where Banderas might have sounded regretful or sympathetic.  Instead, it's all sarcasm and anger.

Meanwhile, Price's singing is passable.  Peron isn't called upon to do much heavy lifting, fortunately.  I do wonder what Raul Julia might have done with the role had he lived.

Auto-Tune was not used for vocal performances until 1997, the year after this film was released.  However, it would not surprise me if some form of proto-Auto-Tune were used for the soundtrack, because everything seems so polished and, dare I say, soulless.  People have criticized Evita for seeming like a two-hour long music video, and unfortunately, those criticisms are valid.  Everything is perfectly staged and set, but no emotion or deeper connection penetrates the musical numbers.  Some of that is the fault of the musical itself, which is rather lacking in introspection.  But if Julie Covington could infuse a range of emotions into the soundtrack, then so could others.

3.  The Focus

Of course, that might have been easier if they knew what the musical was trying to say.  In its earliest version, Evita was, well, a stone-cold calculating bitch.  But she had reasons for being a bitch.  SCREW the middle classes!  They kept her from seeing her father at his funeral, so she planned to trample their rotten values into the ground!  Eva's resentment of the upper classes fueled her rise.  She would do anything to climb to the top and eventually stick it to them!  At the same time, in later musical numbers, Eva showed awareness of how empty her goals were, how little satisfaction they brought her.  Despite her coldness, she managed to have pathos.      

The movie version sort of goes in this direction.  It has the same origin story -- little Eva was prevented from seeing her father! -- and the same resentment as a result.  But because Parker also wants to show that Eva wasn't as "bad" as portrayed, instead of making her a fiery character bent on getting revenge, he makes her... kind of mildly frustrated and sad.  He seems to want us to take her to our bosom and feel sorry for her.  This is evident in the fact that he gives her "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" to sing instead of Peron's mistress.  But at the same time, Eva is also nasty and calculating.  See the way she uses and dumps men!  See the way she heartlessly throws out Peron's teenage mistress!

Is Eva Peron genuinely devoted to elevating the poor, or is she more about sticking it to the rich while enriching herself?  The truth may lie somewhere in between.  The duality presented in the movie is not impossible to pull off, but it would require a really good actress to do it.  And Madonna... well.  She is not helped by the fact that Parker does not seem to know how to view her.  Are we supposed to condemn Eva for everything she does, or feel sorry for her because she's never known real love?  But wait -- she seemed to be close to her brother and sisters in the beginning.  Wouldn't that count as knowing real l... oh never mind.  Madonna's Eva has a forlorn quality, which causes all of her "calculating" actions to seem half hearted.  That, in turn, causes Che to seem like even more of an abusive ex-boyfriend when he blasts her for every little thing that goes wrong.  At one point, I get the impression we're supposed to condemn Eva because the Argentine government is dysfunctional.  I thought her husband was the president?

Again, duality is fine, but the director needs to make a choice.  Are we supposed to be in Eva's corner, or are we supposed to condemn her?  Because Parker never seems to commit, the film has a fuzzy quality from beginning to end.

It does not help that Parker tries to jam in as much historical detail as possible.  That's not to say that historical detail isn't welcome -- any good historical epic should try to be as accurate as possible without sacrificing the story.  But so much new imagery is confusing without context or explanation.  For instance, during one montage, you see members of the legislature throwing papers around.  Why?  It is never explained.

If you do explain it, the best way would probably not be in a fast-moving rock song.  Yet that is Parker's vehicle of choice.  "The Lady's Got Potential" was lifted out of cold storage and rewritten to serve broader historical narrative.  The original version was fairly simple and easy to follow:

The lady's got potential
She ought to go far
She always knows exactly
Who her best friends are.
The greatest social climber since Cinderella.

...

But getting back to Eva
She just saw all those guys
As steps on the ladder to the ultimate prize
And he goes by the name of Colonel Peron.
He began his career in the army oversees
Teaching all the other soldiers
All he knew about skies.
When others took a tumble he would always stay on.

Sure Peron could ski, but who needs a snowman?
He said: "Great men don't grow on trees.
I'm one.  I ain't gonna freeze.
Dictators don't grow on skis."
Peron would be no Number Two to no man!

The original song was unquestionably silly, but at least you could follow.  In the new version, Parker and Rice tried to cram in every single coup that ever happened.  That includes at least two sequences of men being frog-marched downstairs by military figures.  Rationales fly by in a sentence or less.  Yet while the new version purports to be more serious and historically accurate, it contains lines like "knowing the right feller to be stellar" and "Peron was biding time out in the slow lane."  

So is Evita a fun, campy musical about a women you hate, but ultimately can't help rooting for, or a serious, respectable biopic about a flawed historical figure?  The movie tries to be both and does not quite manage either.

4.  The Good

Still, if the movie version of Evita is flawed, it has its good points as well.  Between Eva's numerous outfits and the panoramic settings, it is a feast for the eyes.  The crowds are as vast and as powerful as you would expect them to be -- as they would need to be -- in order to propel Eva and Juan Peron to power.  Directing the crowds was no doubt a difficult feat.  Parker also filmed several scenes at Argentine locations, most notably "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" at the actual Casa Rosada, the presidential mansion.

Also, while a general soullessness pervades the movie, toward the end, Parker permits more live singing, and as a result, you finally start to feel something for Eva.  The "You Must Love Me" song is also a nice addition, showing Eva's realization that a man loves her for herself rather than what she can give him.  Too bad we had to go through the first 1.5 hours to get to this final 20 minutes.

Conclusion

So while Evita is not a bomb, it is also not the triumph that many expected it to be.  When I saw it back in 1996, I walked away generally satisfied, but after subsequent viewings, it has not fared as well.  I will still pull it out on occasion and give it a watch.  But I prefer to listen to the concept album.

      

  

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