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Phantom Power : "The Phantom of the Opera" embellishes on its source

Category: Phantom of the Opera Reviews
Article Date: December 22, 2004 | Publication: Cleveland Free Times | Author: Keith A. Joseph

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Butler as the Phantom.

SIR ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER has had three cracks at silver screen glory. With his swooningly satisfying screen incarnation of his juggernaut musical based on Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera , he's come out a winner two out of three times. In spite of Antonio Banderas' smoldering Che, Evita arrived freeze-dried, thanks to the impenetrable iciness of Madonna's Joan Crawford-like take on the eponymous dictatoress and its automated, relentless editing. However, The Phantom ranks happily next to Norman Jewison's surprisingly effective screen transformation of Jesus Christ Superstar . Both of these works reach their fullest potential at the movies.

Lloyd Webber is no shrinking violet when it comes to appropriating from his masters. To bring The Phantom to the screen, he utilized the Rodgers and Hammerstein manual of skillful screen micromanaging. Like the illustrious team, he took full control and eschewed all Hollywood-type improvements. Oklahoma! had an unexpected director in From Here to Eternity 's Fred Zimmerman, and Lloyd Webber has pulled off the same successful stunt with Batman Forever 's Joel Schumacher.


Directed by Joel Schumacher; written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joel Schumacher. WITH: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Alan Cumming, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver, Ciaran Hinds, Simon Callow, James Fleet, Victor McGuire, Jennifer Ellison. Opens Wednesday areawide.

They are true soulmates. While creating his musical, the composer managed to build his work out of clever borrowings from Puccini, Loewe and even a little bit of the Village People. In filming The Phantom , Schumacher has creatively interpolated stylistic flourishes ranging from Jean Cocteau to Vincente Minnelli. Anyone familiar with Minnelli's musicals will recognize the exquisite stained-glass colors and erotically charged dances, including “Masquerade” on an American in Paris -type staircase, and the ravishing Yolanda and the Thief terpsichorean sensuality in the sultry tango that surrounds the impassioned heroine in The Phantom as she sings “Past the Point of No Return” with the masked man.

To complement the delicious absurdity of the disco-inflected title number, Schumacher utilizes Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast expressionism, with the Phantom leading the kidnapped heroine down a subterranean hallway illuminated by disconnected human arms holding torches. This is an image so extreme that it turns an improbable anachronism into poetry.

Schumacher, as co-screenwriter with Lloyd Webber, has helped strengthen the story's psychological underpinning by expanding the prologue into a framing device and adding some imperative flashbacks to clarify the complicated background. The prologue shows how a film can embellish upon its source: we see a demolished theater magically taken back in time, with tattered upholstery and dust-encrusted cherubs turned gold again and the famous chandelier rising to its former glory, all made viscerally thrilling by an ominous Phantom disco theme.

Since Schumacher wasn't spawned by MTV, Phantom is one of the first musical films since Bob Fosse's Cabaret to not cater to modern minuscule attention spans with over-editing, abridgement of the score or Chicago -like attempts to explain away the numbers as hallucinations. The casting is fresh and unexpected, going against type, forgoing big-name stars for arresting discoveries. Vocally, Gerald Butler's Phantom is closer to a rock singer than the polish of a trained Broadway tenor. He essays Leroux's century-old figure of horror in the brooding manner of Olivier's Heathcliff. The Grand Guignol of the novel and Lon Chaney gives way to pure sex appeal. When unmasked, the repulsive countenance, which supposedly has doomed him from all human contact, is revealed to have nothing more frightening than a mild skin rash and a slip of the barber's shears.

As the pretentious prima donna, Minnie Driver (dubbed horrendously, and intentionally, when singing) applies the same over-the-top pandemonium Madeleine Kahn brought to Blazing Saddles . The movie's greatest asset is 17-year-old Emmy Rossum, playing the heroine, Christine, with a luminous innocence. Though it seems obvious, it was a brilliant stroke to actually have youth embodying youth.

The last film operetta, Song of Norway (1970), sank to box-office purgatory. If The Phantom of the Opera fails as a movie, it will prove that MTV has permanently warped modern civilization.


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