Andrew Lloyd Weber must be spinning in his grave. Oh, wait. He's not dead. And he used his own money to produce the film version of his mega-hit musical "Phantom of The Opera"? What went wrong?
The Opera Populaire enjoys a loyal, devoted public. Unfortunately, they are being held hostage at the hands of a tempremental, egotistical chanteuse by the name of Carlotta (Minnie Driver). Fed up with all of the headaches, the owner of the Opera sells it to Firmin and Andre (Ciaran Hands and Simon Callow), two junk merchants eager to become respectable, backed by Raoul (Patrick Wilson), a young, rich benefactor. They soon have to find a replacement for Carlotta, and Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), suggests Christine (Emmy Rossum), a young protégé of the Phantom (Gerard Butler). She does an outstanding job, much to the delight of the Phantom. But the Phantom's demands, Raoul's growing attraction and other factors soon begin to play out with disastrous consequences.
Andrew Lloyd Weber's "Phantom of The Opera" has become one of the most successful musicals of all time. It has played around the world, for extended periods, proving that it touches a large segment of the population. A film would seem inevitable. When someone is so closely identified with a piece of work, it makes sense that they would want to oversee every aspect of the film, to make sure 'they got it right'. Weber used his own money to produce the film, presumably so he could retain control of the project.
I know many of the fans were hoping Michael Crawford, who originated the role on Broadway, would be cast in the film. I was never able to see Crawford in the role, and saw a much later version in London, with someone I don't even remember. The musical was still fun, mesmerizing and a spectacle to watch. The film is mesmerizing and a spectacle, but not always for the right reasons.
Instead, the filmmakers chose Gerard Butler ("Dear Frankie"), a little known Scottish actor for the role. I have seen Butler in a few other films and can recognize that he is actually doing the singing. He does a very good job; his voice has a deep timber that works well with the music. Emmy Rossum is certainly a beautiful young woman and she creates a character who is certainly timid and awed by her first appearance in an opera. However, I didn't think her singing voice was that much different from Carlotta's. Carlotta's voice is supposed to be horrible, ear screeching and embarrassingly bad. Christine's voice is certainly more pretty, but the character is not above trying to reach those high operatic notes which can sound like nails on a chalkboard to many. The voices of the two characters are not different enough to set the characters apart. Her voice is also drowned out in some of the more active areas. If she is singing with almost anyone else, she is almost always drowned out. Patrick Wilson is also very handsome, but again, his voice is not very strong.
The acting between the three leads is very close to that of a play. In a play or musical, you have to take certain leaps of faith because you are unable to have scenes which provide insight into a characters thoughts or feelings, unless they are acting or singing these same thoughts. In a film, there are tricks and methods to reveal these things. In the film of "Phantom", the filmmaker sticks pretty closely to a theatrical model. Therefore, we have to believe that Raoul and Christine are attracted to each other after remembering they grew up together. They fall in love after singing to each other. Normal dramatic devices are thrown out the window. I think if you can take this leap of faith, you might enjoy the relationship between Christine and Raoul. The relationship between Christine and the Phantom is similar. She is naturally drawn to him as a mentor. But the relationship also has some creepy overtones. At one point, he pretends to be her father. Hello, Mr. Freud? Earlier, he has finished singing a song to her, romancing her, and shows her a wedding dress he has had made for her. A tad creepy. And not creepy in the right way.
What doesn't work as well is the relationship between the three characters, the love triangle. Christine's admiration and love seems to flip flop between the two characters depending on whoever is currently singing to her. Naturally, Raoul and the Phantom want to beat the crap out of each other. At one point, as Raoul is about to kill the Phantom, Christine yells out "No, not like this." Well, why not? Because if he did kill the Phantom at that point, the story would end and they would liver happily ever after. But the filmmakers can't let that happen, they have about another hour of stuff they want to do, songs they want to sing.
The song "Masquerade", which provides a key point in the stage production is a good example of what is wrong with the film version. "Phantom" is a lot more like the musicals the studios made in the 50s than it wants to be. With the recent releases of "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago", it tries to borrow a page from their success, but ends up creating a hodgepodge of a musical mess. "Moulin Rouge", which I loved and many hated, used a lot of rapid editing and pop culture songs to tell the story of a doomed relationship in early 20th Century Paris. "Chicago" slowed down the editing quite a bit and told a jazzier story. "Phantom"'s lyrics and style are more like a rock opera but it's sensibilities lie more with films like "Brigadoon" or "Meet Me In St. Louis". "Phantom" desperately wants to be hipper than that, which is why director Joel Schumacher frequently cuts away from the action to weird, out of focus, quick shots. "Masquerade" is a good song and could clearly stand on its own. However, it is an old-fashioned musical number. People dance down a large staircase in a highly choreographed manner. Schumacher cuts away from this action to brief, quick shots of other dancers, some of which are out of focus. It's hip. It's young. It's MTV.
Schumacher is the other major problem with "Phantom". The attention to detail and production design for the film are fantastic. From the opening segment, shot in black and white and created to look like old newsreel footage, to the color sequences in the old opera house, the film is a sight to behold. The black and white segment takes place in the opera house, many years later, when it is in disrepair. As they relight the fabled chandelier, the opera house quickly dusts itself off and we see it in all its grandeur and glory. The scene is magnificent and quickly clues us in to the fact that a lot of money was spent to recreate these sets. As the film progresses, we realize that Schumacher is in love with the production design. No, not in love. He has developed an unhealthy infatuation. Someone should have filed for a restraining order to keep him 100 yards away. As we first follow some characters through the backstage area, Schumacher's camera pans up and down, back and forth, to show us the extent of the set. This is necessary and useful to show us that this world is "real". However, he does this exact same movement more than once through the same set. Each time we visit a new area, his camera lingers over every detail. Look at this production design folks. It's brilliant. We get it, Joel. It quickly becomes tiring, repetitive and only serves to draw us out of the action and the world they tried so hard to recreate.
Because of all of the excessive shots lingering on various pieces of the set, my boredom in the central relationships and my irritation with some of the singing, I changed the audio on the DVD to the French language track and turned on the English subtitles. You know what? I actually enjoyed the film more. The French singing was a little more beautiful and didn't detract from my experience. But I hardly believe this is what the filmmakers want us to do. Too bad they didn't have different angles on the DVD for me to switch between.
If you are a huge fan of the play, you will probably enjoy this film version. If you aren't, skip it. There are far better musicals out there.