To say that Andrew Lloyd Webber reinvented the Broadway musical is perhaps a bit much. Still, there’s no denying Sir Andrew the titanic impact of his creations on live theater. Webber’s gift to stagecraft is his showmanship; his ability to write instantly recognizable pop operas with collaborator Tim Rice. The pop opera is perhaps the toughest nut to crack. It requires a delicate balancing act.
Too heavy on the libretto and you have a clunky heavyweight entertainment that’s trying too hard to be highbrow. Too light on telling the story through uninterrupted song and you wind up with just another ‘review’ full of bright and bouncy tunes that become forgettable as soon as the houselights come up. But Webber’s contributions have neatly fit somewhere between these polar opposites to become iconic masterworks.
In retrospect, Evita is perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first major work of cultural significance. However, turning the rather sordid life of Eva Peron into a song spectacular was a prospect not immediately embraced. Indeed, producer Robert Stigwood had hoped to entice Webber and Rice to write a new musical version of Peter Pan. That project was abandoned. But it was almost immediately replaced by an idea Webber had after hearing a radio dramatization of Eva Peron’s life on the BBC.
Beginning as a ‘concept album’ in 1972, Evita hit London’s west end four years later with an already presold score, where it became one of the most celebrated live theater events of its generation. Unhappy chance and timing for Webber and Rice that Hollywood had long since turned its back on the big splashy stage to screen musical hybrid that had been their bread and butter throughout the 1960s. Yet, in retrospect, this lack of timing seems fortuitous.
The interim between Broadway’s smash debut and this film version by Alan Parker in 1996 had given rise to pop singer Madonna – arguably the only music icon of her generation who could do justice to that role made immortal a decade earlier on the stage by Patti Lupone. Madonna’s reputation for salaciousness preceded her arrival to Argentina and created quite a bit of scandal and protest amongst the locals. Eva Peron had been – and was still widely regarded – as the country’s uncrowned princess – no less a deity than Grace of Monaco or England’s Elizabeth.
Screen heartthrob Antonio Banderas was cast in the pivotal role of Che – a sort of one man Greek chorus who bookends the play and the film’s narrative as our master of ceremonies. Che is a curious creation. In fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber had no interest in immortalizing guerrilla fighter Che Guevara when he began to write Evita. It was only after producer Harold Smith Price became associated with the project that Guevara was incorporated into the story.
But Argentina had other reasons for objecting to Evita; namely its portrayal of their most vivacious First Lady as a scheming social climber who began her career as just another prostitute in one of the country’s infamous many brothels. Andrew Lloyd Webber worked diligently to reshape his work, along with Oliver Stone, to suit the conventions of a big budget Hollywood musical.
The narrative is told as one gigantic flashback. After patrons to a local cinema are alerted of Eva’s passing, thereby plunging the country into a collective mourning, Che opens the musical program with ‘Oh What A Circus, What A Show’ – a deconstruction of the deity back into the woman ‘Eva Eduardo’ whom we first meet in a seedy brothel entertaining clientele (Song: Another Suitcase in Another Hall).
The social climbing Eva has other plans however, and each time she beds a new customer she finds new ways of elevating her stature (Song: Goodnight and Thank You Whoever). A singing job on the radio brings her to the attention of Gen. Juan Peron (Jonathan Price) who is eyeing his own political ambitions. The two evolve their mutual admiration into an affection that seems quite genuine but raises the dander of the Argentina’s military as well as its upper class (Song: Peron’s Latest Flame).
At first, Eva sees Peron as just another opportunity to better herself. But then something miraculous occurs. The two fall in love and are married. Both the play and the film make no apologies for each using the other to get what they want. Eva exploits the power of the radio to sell Juan to the people as their next ruler. Her campaigning works (Song: A New Argentina). Peron becomes President and Eva his First Lady, much to the chagrin of the Argentinian aristocracy, who shun Eva at every social opportunity. But it doesn’t matter. The people adore her (Song: Don’t Cry For Me Argentina), and Eva uses this newfound popularity to bring clean water, electricity and other amenities to the poor and underprivileged in her country (Song: And The Money Kept Rolling In).
Peron affords his wife unprecedented leeway to reach out to the masses because he understands how successful his Presidency has become under his wife’s manipulations. But Peron’s Privy Council don’t like Eva either, and gradually begin to hint that perhaps he would do better without her guidance and support. Realizing that the future of his regime will rely on outside world influences, Peron decides to send Eva on a goodwill European campaign (Song: The Rainbow Tour).
The excursion begins on a high note, with Eva as popular as ever in her ability to connect with the people. Unfortunately, the Pope gives Eva a polite, but rather obvious brushoff, and this begins a downward spiral in her popularity. Succumbing to a mysterious illness during her visit to France, Eva is rushed home to recuperate. She learns she has been stricken with a fatal cancer. Retiring to the Presidential palace, Eva is cared for by her adoring husband (Song: You Must Love Me). The film ends with her death, Che tormented and Peron utterly distraught over her passing, perhaps realizing that her passing is also the death knell for his Presidency.
In every sense Evita is a monumental undertaking. Moreover, in the anti-musical climate that preceded the film, it was a very gutsy move by Alan Parker. However, lest we forget that Parker is the man responsible for Fame (1980); another movie musical no one really wanted to make, but that went on to have a life of its own as a popular television series for some years thereafter. Parker knows his way around a good story and Evita is certainly a fascinating bit of history wrapped inside this big shiny tune filled extravaganza.
The score is scintillating and pulls no punches. Webber and Rice have stitched together a brutally honest, richly detailed tapestry of the life and times of Eva Peron. The only original song written expressly for the film is ‘You Must Love Me’ – and marketed as a pop single months in advance of the film’s debut. Slick marketing. Good P.R. And it must be said that Madonna is the quintessence of Eva Peron down to the last detail. This is her finest hour in movies and such a pity that it wasn’t better received by the critics then, most of who thought her voice too thin for the more ambitious vocal arrangements. I disagree.
True enough, Madonna does not hit these tunes out of the park as Patti Lupone’s Broadway cast recordings do. But what she does is to integrate the emotional content of the character into these melodies. Her Eva Peron is not the Broadway diva selling a score, but the flesh and blood incarnation of a real woman, emotionally fragile yet passionate about her convictions. There is poignancy in Madonna’s reconceptualising of the Webber/Rice lyrics. As such the songs don’t stand out per say so much as they contribute to the general arch of the narrative. That sort of vocalization is impressive in its own right. More importantly, it works for film storytelling. The story doesn’t end when the music begins or vice versa. The result is a totally immersive cinematic experience.
Banderas is in very fine voice. His Che is an embittered jilted lover who is torn between a conflicted admiration/contempt for the girl he once knew and the frosty reception of a woman who has shunned his affections since in order to better her own circumstances. Vocally, Banderas captures the essence of Che’s frustrations, translating the Webber/Rice melodies into fiery diatribes that seer themselves into our collective memory. Jonathan Price is adequate, though not nearly as exceptional as Peron. He’s something of a disappointment when directly compared to Banderas and Madonna. That said, he isn’t awful and manages to hold his own.
In retrospect, what I find most impressive about Evita is that it’s nearly 134 minutes of wall to wall music with very brief interludes of dialogue sandwiched between; yet there’s never a moment where the score seems to overpower the senses or make us wish the story would just come to an end. That is perhaps a hallmark of Parker’s brilliant staging. He is ably aided by Darius Khondji’s evocative cinematography that manages to recapture much of the vintage look of Argentina under Peron’s reign. In the final analysis, Evita remains one of the best Hollywood musicals made in the last 40 years.
Buena Vista Home Video has finally come around to honouring us with a Blu-ray of this great movie. It’s about time! We’ve had to contend with one of the worst looking DVDs of all time for fifteen years. The Blu-ray gets an anamorphic transfer. That’s a step in the right direction. But there’s something strangely anaemic about the colors in this 1080p transfer. I remember seeing Evita at the theater, but don’t recall the overwhelming sepia tone being quite so faded in appearance then.
The image is dark, as is in keeping with the original theatrical presentation. And while fine detailing takes a quantum leap forward over the DVD (which wasn’t hard to do), a lot of detail simply gets lost during darker sequences. Flesh tones looked just a tad too pasty for my liking. Overall, I have to say I was underwhelmed by the visuals. They’re sharp and nicely contrasted, but again, color fidelity seems wanting.
The audio is markedly improved; 5.1 DTS with an aggressive kick. Extras include a retrospective ‘making of’ documentary with Parker and cast and crew going to Buenos Aires to affectionately wax about their involvement. We also get Madonna’s music video for ‘You Must Love Me’ and a badly worn teaser trailer. I’m going to recommend this Blu-ray because it certainly improves at every level over the lackluster DVD release. Is it perfection? Uh…no – and that’s a shame. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)