December 27, 2004

MOVIES: The Phantom of the Opera (Joel Schumacher, 2004)

Here's the first question that comes to mind after watching The Phantom of the Opera: Why is Minnie Driver in this movie?

Driver plays Carlotta, the great diva of the Opera Populaire; the role must be sung by a fabulous operatic soprano, and Driver is therefore the only member of the cast who does not do her own singing. There's not a lot of dialogue in the movie, and what little there is could easily be handled by any competent actress; and it's not as if Driver is the sort of box-office draw whose name on the poster is going to sell tickets. So why not just hire an actress who can sing the part?

The next question that comes to mind is this: Why do we think of Phantom as a musical, and not as an opera, or at least an operetta? At least 30% of the music is overt operatic pastiche, presented to us as performances of the opera company within the movie; the rest of it is certainly closer to opera than to traditional musical theater. There's not much dialogue between songs, and large chunks of it are performed in recitative style.

The role of Christine is certainly an opera role; it's not accidental that Broadway's Christines have not gone on to significant post-Phantom musical careers, and you certainly can't imagine most of Broadway's great leading ladies in the role. Patti LuPone? Bernadette Peters? Ethel Merman? Wouldn't work.

The new film version of Phantom is blessed with a very fine Christine in Emmy Rossum, and her performance alone is enough reason to see the movie. The men in the movie's romantic triangle -- Gerard Butler as the Phantom and Patrick Wilson as Raoul -- are competent enough singers, though not very interesting ones, and neither has the sort of riveting sexuality that would make us feel Christine's dilemma more intensely. Wilson is a particularly bland presence, and it's always hard to take seriously a leading man whose hair is prettier and more luxurious than that of the heroine.

The production is spectacular, with big, gorgeous, painstakingly detailed sets and costumes; the movie is a delight to look at, and should be seen on as big a screen as possible.

The music isn't any better than it's ever been (and the lyrics are dismal), but as Noel Coward noted, it is "extraordinary how potent cheap music is," and when Rossum sails through "Think of Me," or Butler hits the high note in the bridge of "Music of the Night," you can understand why this musical keeps running and running on the stage.

The Phantom of the Opera is certainly a magnificent movie to watch, and in the hands of these singers, it's as pleasant to listen to as one could hope for.

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