There’s an interesting pattern to the bulk of the negative reviews of the new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Nearly every such review comes from one of three types of critics bearing grindable axes: those who hate musicals in general, those who hate Andrew Lloyd Webber in particular, and those who hate director Joel Schumacher.
And if you fall into either of the first two categories, reading further is purely academic, since you’re probably going to hate this movie. However, if your reservations are grounded in Mr. Schumacher’s role, I’d urge you to rethink your position and give him a chance.
I’ve said many less than complimentary things about Schumacher over the years (Bad Company, anyone?) and I approached his latest effort with extreme trepidation. But once the film started unspooling, it didn’t take long to overcome any and all reservations. Whatever problems I’ve had with Schumacher in the past are swept away here, and for once, I found that frequently pompous and meaningless credit — “a film by … ” — to be wholly justified. If anyone ever deserved that accolade, Schumacher deserves it here.
Despite being (obviously) grounded in Lloyd Webber’s score, this is every inch a filmmaker’s film, and a brilliant one at that. No, it’s not without its influences; but how many films are? This film certainly exists within its creative time. The opening credits, for example, have more than a passing relationship with those in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, as does the black-and-white lead-in segment. There are also distinct echoes of the music videos Ken Russell made with the show’s original Christine (Sara Brightman) in the 1980s. The film’s backstory on the Phantom owes something to David Lynch’s film of The Elephant Man. And for that matter, there are clearly intentional references to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast.
I doubt that Schumacher would deny these influences. The Cocteau is too obvious, and he’s on record as an admirer of Russell’s work (he even used three Russell veterans — Murray Melvin, Judith Paris and Paul Brooke — in Phantom). In any case, Schumacher filters such influences through his own sensibility, so that the resulting film is informed by these elements, but is by no means a copy of them.
Schumacher’s approach is exactly right for the material. Now, I confess I was taken with the score when I first heard it 1987, though I’m not generally a big fan — or, conversely, a big detractor — of Lloyd Webber. (Put me down for liking Jesus Christ Superstar and really liking the ersatz-Puccini of Phantom.) But Schumacher has delivered the film I’d always imagined could be made from the material — or possibly an even better one.
His film creates moments of heart-stopping beauty and power. For example, I can’t imagine anyone with an interest in film not being completely poleaxed by an early sequence where the derelict opera house restores itself to its former glory. I don’t mean just the elaborate transformation from black-and-white, cobwebbed decay to gilt and red freshness, but also brilliant moments like when the camera tracks past the gas footlights bursting into flame in time with the music (a scene reminiscent of the rhythmic chimney smoke in Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight).
Such moments set the tone for the whole film, which brings back something rarely seen in movies today (and not seen at all since Moulin Rouge!): a true sense of the kind of spectacle that’s only possible in film.
Oh, sure, lately we’ve had plenty of spectacle — sometimes brilliant (Lord of the Rings, Hero), more often ludicrous (Troy, The Day After Tomorrow, Timeline, etc.), and occasionally a bit of both (Alexander). The stories in those films, however, are themselves spectacle-driven. Like Moulin Rouge!, Phantom uses spectacle both for its own sake and to match the operatic emotions of the story.
Phantom, however, differs because it dares to be old-fashioned. Luhrmann’s film, while still high on the emotional content, is fueled by a post-modern sensibility that makes it slightly aware of its own absurdity even while celebrating it. Schumacher’s film completely embraces its over-the-top emotionalism, and that’s a perfect match for the material. Moreover, Luhrmann — love him or hate him — is drunk on the sheer possibilities of film. Schumacher is instead drunk on the romanticism of his story.
And again, that’s perfect. Schumacher’s is a gloriously sweeping film that eschews the aggressive editing of Moulin Rouge! (or Chicago, for that matter), and that’s exactly what’s called for.
I’m not going to bother recounting the well-known story of The Phantom of the Opera. Gaston Leroux’s potboiler novel has seen duty on the screen numerous times — mostly notably in 1925, 1943 and 1962 — and all versions have their admirers and detractors. The 1925 Lon Chaney version is still the most highly regarded (in part because it’s closest to the novel, which is a dubious accolade). That, of course, raises the question of how this latest Phantom stacks up against earlier versions.
That’s a hard call, since this is a more romantic take on the story, but this version does incorporate the basic plot and most of the major events. The film may be shy on the horror content for some tastes (as was the 1943 version), but the material is there and it boasts the best chandelier crash ever filmed. (Face facts, Chaney fans: The crash in the 1925 version is pretty much a botch job; the 1943 version and this new one take the honors on this score.)
And what of Gerard Butler’s Phantom? While the ante has been upped on the romantic front, he’s still quite a credible Phantom — and an interesting case of casting more for character than voice, since as a vocalist he’s not much more than adequate. Emmy Rossum’s Christine gets my vote as the best ever. And there are splendid character contributions from Minnie Driver, Miranda Richardson, Ciaran Hinds and Murray Melvin.
As for the music … well, that depends on how you feel about Lloyd Webber. Sure, the music’s heavily influenced by Puccini and other classical composers. (The four notes that end the film are too similar to the ones that open and close the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Felix Mendelssohn to be a coincidence.) But does that mean that the music isn’t effective on its own terms? Not so far as I’m concerned.
Overall, as truly brilliant, emotional, sumptuous filmmaking, Schumacher’s Phantom is pure gold. It’s one of those movies where I spent a lot of my first viewing thinking, “Yes, this is what movies are really all about.” Rated PG-13 for brief violent images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke