The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Musicals.  Having to watch one typically causes a chill in my spine unlike any horror film.  With a horror film I typically know that even if it is boring or just plain bad that it will be over, in most cases, in about 90 minutes, even if that 90 minutes feels like three hours.  Musicals, though, take that 90 minutes of plot and stretch it out for unfathomable amounts of time with major production pieces, overdramatic songs and what typically amounts to a fair amount of empty bombast.

Empty bombast is probably the best way to describe Andrew Lloyd Webber.  I know it may be strange for me, as a person who loves music so much, to have such a revulsion to musical theater.  While I do occasionally like a few classic musicals they tend to be ones where the plot would work with or without the music, and vice versa.  Some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's stuff does - parts of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, for instance, although I cannot stand to sit through an entire production of either.  For the most part the same could be said about his version of The Phantom of the Opera, though it does redeem itself by not deviating too far for Gaston Leroux's novel.  

Christine Daaé (Emmy Rossum) is a chorus girl for a Paris opera house where she was brought to live after her father died.  When he passed he promised an Angel of Music would look after her and, during her years with the opera, she has been trained by an unseen tutor to someday replace the house's diva, La Carlotta (Minnie Driver).  The chance comes when the opera is purchased by two new owners who unintentionally offend La Carlotta to the point where she refuses to sing.  In her place, at the suggestion of the chorus and ballet choreographer Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), Christine performs the lead role that night.

The crowd loves her, much to La Carlotta's dismay, but much to the joy of Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), a childhood friend of Christine's who recognizes her on the stage.  The problem is Christine's tutor has made it clear that nothing is to come between her and her music, and with Raoul rekindling old feelings in her the Phantom (Gerard Butler) soon makes his presence and demands more known, with sabotage soon escalating to murder and kidnaping.  Soon Raoul finds himself at war with the Phantom both for Christine's attentions as well as her life.

Joel Schumacher, though these days heavily criticized for making Batman and Robin - arguably one of the worst superhero films of all time, and the one that killed off the original Batman series that Tim Burton had started - got the role as director due to The Lost Boys.  In many of his movies Schumacher was able to combine visuals and music rather well, and in many places in this version of The Phantom of the Opera he does what he was hired to do.  The Lost Boys in many places also looked like a 1980s rock video - a thing that I am perfectly fine with because of when it was made and because I couldn't imagine that movie any other way, but it often doesn't work in The Phantom of the Opera.  The best parts of the movie, in fact, are many of the times where there is no singing and the actors naturally move the plot along. 

Part of the problem - and I know those who are fans of Webber's work will call me out for it, but it also may be my taste in general - is that, apart from the main instrumental overture and theme, much of the music here isn't that memorable.  "Music of the Night" isn't bad, but it goes on longer than it needs to.  It's a shame because, vocally, Gerard Butler has a rough quality that works at the times when the Phantom descends into madness, but even he can't overcome an overwritten song.  There are a few other places where I didn't mind it, but the songs were overwhelmingly duets of varying quality, most of them forgettable.  I thought some of them had stuck with me, but then realized the music that was going through my head was an unproduced musical that I actually like called The Bells, by musician and carillon player Frank DellaPenna, who goes by the professional name Cast in Bronze.  It's quite obvious his style is influenced by Webber, but many of his songs work better just as songs. 

There is also a problem with the story at the heart of everything.  Whatever the Phantom may have been through in life it's hard to put aside that he has groomed a young girl, deceived her into thinking he is the ghost of her father and then tries to force her to marry him.  That is why the Hammer version, with Herbert Lom, had to go through a lot of pains to make sure his interest in Christine was only for music, and the only hardship he put her through was being a demanding teacher; also, a new character was created to lay the blame for the murders upon.  In every other version the Phantom is a controlling, abusive man, and there is no attempt to sugarcoat it once Christine finds out the reality behind her "Angel."  He's a monster, not merely physically, but to his very soul.  Webber tries, and fails, to make him a romantic anti-hero, when he is still just a manipulative creep. 

Emmy Rossum does a lot of the heavy lifting in the film as she has to make Christine convincing enough to be someone the Phantom would see innate talent in, but still have imperfections.  Patrick Wilson is okay, but largely just pretty and bland.  Minnie Driver, though she does not actually sing in the film, still gives a humorous performance as the self-obsessed La Carlotta, while other bits of humor sprout up throughout that livens up the film a bit.  Unfortunately, by the end, there seems to be more Webber than Schumacher here, for good or bad.  Without the music it could have been a faithful remake of The Phantom of the Opera from 1925, and it would have been good, especially with Schumacher's black and white bookends.  There is still enough story here to make it watchable, but having to endure nearly two and a half hours of what, in the past, has barely exceeded 90 minutes in other versions, is a lot to expect. 

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Time: 143 minutes
Starring: Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson
Director: Joel Schumacher



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