Evita

 

  Almost from the time the stage musical opened in London in 1978,
film producers were interested in turning
EVITA, the Andrew Lloyd Weber-
Tim Rice show into a feature film. When the Broadway production opened
in 1979, it made stars of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin, each of whom
won a Tony® Award. Just about any actress who could carry a tune
was bandied about as a potential star. At various times over the course of
some sixteen years, the role was reported to have been offered to Meryl
Streep, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Newton-John, Barbra Streisand, and Liza
Minnelli. Directors ranging from Ken Russell to Oliver Stone were supposed
to have been interested in filming the project. There was even a non-musical
TV-movie starring Faye Dunaway made in 1981.

  Finally, the plantes aligned and Alan Parker emerged as the man who
would direct the film. Paker came to the project with several fine musicals
on his resume, including
BUGSY MALONE (1976), FAME (1980), PINK
FLOYD THE WALL (1982)
, and THE COMMITMENTS (1991). He cast
Antonio Banderas as the narrator character called Ché (after Ernesto
Guevara), award-winning stage actor Jonathan Pryce as Juan Perón. The
lead went to Madonna, the chameleonic singer and dancer noted for
constantly reinventing herself. On paper, she was a masterful choice and
many saw parallels between Evita and Madonna. A disciplined performer,
Madonna even took singing lessons in order to best perform the operatic
score.

  As Evita, the role called for Madonna to age from a teenager to her
mid-thirties and she pulls that aspect off nicely. We first glimpse her as
a young woman flirting with a married tango singer (played by Jimmy Nail)
whom she uses as a means to escape from her rural town to head to  
Buenos Aires. (Along the way, she gets to sing a paean to that city.)
Madonna managed to look right in the period costumes and all, but there
seemed to be something missing.

  After careful consideration, I came to the conclusion that director
Alan Parker either completely forgot how to stage a musical film, or, more
likely, he had lost confidence in his leading lady. Instead of training the
camera on her during her numbers, he frequently cut away. Now I know that
the influence of MTV and the video generation made filmmakers feel
they could not sustain long shots and that they often had to edit a film
in a manner that made it looked like they threw all the footage in a blender,
but this was very noticeable. He would hold the camera on Pryce and
Banderas, but not on Madonna, effectively undercutting her work.

  Granted, Madonna might be lacking certain thespian skills -- face
it, she'll never be invoked as a great screen actress, but this really should
have been a perfect marriage of star and role. Truthfully, she sang the
heck out of the score and was quite moving performing the film's one new
Oscar-bait song "You Must Love Me." But when she's standing on the
balcony of the Casa Rosada and singing "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina,"
one of the pieces high points, Parker continually cut away to reaction
shots of the crowds diuting the effectiveness of the performer and her
work.

  In other sequences, Parker manages to stage exciting set pieces
("A New Argentina" comes to mind), but someone (and since he's the
director he has to share the blame) made a giant faux pas. Banderas
sang well enough but there was no attempt to link the character to
the historical figure. On stage, the actor playing Ché was bearded, wore
a beret and frequently dressed in camouflage. Instead, in the movie,
the character becomes an sort of Everyman figure and that alters the
dynamic of the story slightly. Instead of committing to these changes
(which would have meant rewriting some of the lyrics), the attempt
comes across as half-assed and not very well thought out. Banderas
acquits himself well enough and displays a nice if not terribly strong
singing voice. The best performance in the film, though, was that of
Jonathan Pryce, who turned a thankless role into something bordering
on memorable.

  Purists who love the stage show will find some of the musical
changes a little disconcerting, particularly the decision to give "Another
Suitcase in Another Hall" to Evita, but in the context of the film, it works.
There are minor alterations as well and the new ballad, "You Must Love
Me" which Eva performs after learning she is dying is quite lovely and
touching.

  Overall, the film looks gorgeous thanks to the production design of
Brian Morris, the exquisite costumes by Penny Rose, and the expert
lensing of Darius Khondji. Gerry Hembling's editing, however, left me
a bit cold.
EVITA is by no means a disaster. There are many entertaining
moments. I guess given the checkered history of the project, one should
be grateful it made it to the screen at all.


          
Rating:                 B-
          
MPAA Rating:        PG for thematic elements, images of
                                          violence and some mild language
          
Running time:       134 mins.
 

                  Viewed at the Loews Lincoln Square Theater
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.