Phantom of the Opera, The (2004)

Surprisingly, The Phantom of the Opera is Joel Schumacher’s first stab at a big Hollywood musical. Carrying a huge theatrical baggage, this film version is a decidedly mixed bag, an ultra-lavish production that exhibits in its costumes and design the dubious aesthetic of Kitsch–American Kitsch.

Phantom of the Opera will suffer when inevitable comparisons are made with Hollywood’s recent high-profile musicals: Baz Luhrmann’s brilliant Moulin Rouge in 2001, and Rob Marshall’s Chicago, which won the 2002 Best Picture Oscar. While more accomplished and enjoyable than Evita, Phantom is marred by similar problems that had hampered the 1996 musical movie.

Overly theatrical, claustrophobic, and a bit stale, this is an extremely stylized production. To illustrate the change in time frame, the 1870 sequences, which contain most of the story, are in lush, bright and gold colors, whereas the present, 1919, is conveyed in black-and-white. Periodically, the movie inserts the black-and-white sequences as pauses.

The best thing about this production is Emmy Rossum’s luminous singing and sensitive acting. In contrast, Gerald Butler as the Phantom has the requisite physical appearance and charismatic presence, but his limited vocal range leaves a lot to be desired, at least compared with Michael Crawford of the stage production. As the third wheel of tale’s romantic triangle, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny, Patrick Wilson acquits himself honorably as actor and singer, making good use of his musical experience (most recently as Curly in the Broadway production of Oklahoma!).

In its current shape, Phantom runs the risk of not pleasing those who liked and those who didn’t like the stage production, which is still running on Broadway and in many other cities. The challenge will be to recruit younger audiences, particularly males, since Phantom is not as hip and innovative as Moulin Rouge, and it also lacks the cool, cynical tone of Chicago.

That the three central cast members are not stars may present a further marketing problem in turning Phantom into an event-movie during the extremely competitive upcoming holiday season. That said, the film improves considerably as it goes along, and, by the end, accumulates considerable emotional power.

“Phantom of the Opera is a very personal piece in my career,” Lloyd Webber has said, acknowledging the personal contribution of his ex-wife Sarah Brightman, who had originated Christine’s role in London. For Schumacher too, Phantom is a personal piece, albeit in different way. This Phantom may be the closest expression of Schumacher’s aesthetics, the most direct result of his background as a window-dresser and costume designer.

“I’m not an intellectual and not an artist, I’m a pop culture sponge,” Schumacher said in an interview. And, indeed, this surprisingly modest credo sums up the most crucial and enjoyable elements of his film work, of which Phantom is exemplary. Unpretentious, middlebrow, and commercial in the best sense of the term, Schumacher’s films are unabashedly made for mass entertainment. Betraying his origins in fashion and costume design, Schumacher’s movies in general, and Phantom in particular, are stylishly appointed and often too slick.

With the notable exception of Vincente Minnelli, Schumacher may be the only major Hollywood director to have come from costume design. His foray into Hollywood began as a window dresser for Bendel’s department store, then costume designer for Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Interiors and Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love.

Proficient at casting–and placating the egos of his prickly stars–Schumacher holds that, “the real job of a director is to hire very talented people and remind them how talented they are.” But casting in present-day Hollywood is not as easy a task as it was during the Golden age, when each studio has its stable of stars and contract players. In Phantom, as in most of his films, Schumacher has done a wonderful job of casting, from the leads down to the smallest parts

Thematically, too, Phantom is a personal film, continuing Schumacher’s interest in exploring the issue of death and its impact on the living. You may recall The Lost Boys, Flatliners, Dying Young, all of which deal with the sacredness and preciousness of life. And now comes Phantom, in which several crucial scenes are set in a cemetery, including the very last sequence, which cannot be revealed here.

Schumacher is not intimidated by the musical’s pedigree. Having garnered worldwide box office receipts of over $3.2 billion, Lloyd Webber’s musical phenomenon is the world’s most popular stage production. Since its 1986 debut in London, the musical has reached an estimated audience of 80 million people. The musical’s original recording, released in 1987, is the biggest selling cast album of all time, with over 40 million copies.

Lloyd Webber approached Schumacher to direct his musical in 1988, after seeing his vampire thriller, The Last Boys. I thought Joel had an incredible visual sense and his use of music in the film was exceptional, the composer has said. One of the great joys of collaborating with Joel is his great ear for music. He understands how music drives the story.

However, after his divorce from Phantom’s star, Sarah Brightman, the actress who originated the role and served as Lloyd Webber’s muse, the composer decided to postpone the film. Over the next decade, Webber continued to discuss collaboration with Schumacher, but he was unavailable, busily helming an array of hit films including Batman Forever, A Time to Kill, and The Client. Fate and timing collided in December 2002, when the old friends met in London and the Lloyd proposed again to join forces.

Long awaited by Phantom’s fans, Schumacher’s sumptuous adaptation takes audiences beyond the boundaries of theater, immersing them in a vibrant world of high romance, soaring music, and riveting suspense, while introducing the story to a new generation of moviegoers.

Originally published in 1911, Leroux’s novel, a tale of a disfigured musical genius that haunts the catacombs of a Parisian opera house, has inspired numerous film and TV interpretations. Schumacher’s version presents the Phantom not as a creature of horror to be feared, but as a tragic romantic, a lover transfixed by Christine, the opera’s beguiling young singer. His voice calls to her, nurturing the extraordinary talents from the shadows of the opera house.

As co-writers Lloyd Webber and Schumacher have made a number of good decisions. First, they have structured the piece as a romantic triangle between Christine, the Phantom, and Raoul, the Opera Populaire’s wealthy new patron and Christine’s childhood sweetheart. Accustomed to rejection, all the Phantom wants is a companion, someone who understands him. Christine becomes the sole focus of his life, his obsession. Borderline noir, the musical gets darker and darker. As the Phantom watches Christine’s growing attraction to Raoul, he increasingly becomes blinded by his rage and desire. He deludes himself that if he writes an opera for Christine, she’ll love him, that if he brings her to his lair, she’ll finally understand his strange world.

Second, since Christine is played by an actress who’s only nineteen, Phantom becomes a coming-of-age story about the romantic and emotional awakening of a teenager. Schumacher stresses that Christine’s pull towards the Phantom reflects a sexual and soulful union, that they could have been together, if he was not disfigured and hadn’t become as violent and insane. Christine is the only one who meets the Phantom’s disfigurement with compassion and understanding.

Third, Wilson’s interpretation of Raoul is more dynamic than the one seen on stage, in which he was a minor figure. Elevated for the movie version, Raoul is now a more aggressive and swashbuckling romantic hero. As such, he becomes more appealing to Christine and more threatening to the Phantom. .

Fourth, Schumacher has also expanded the role of Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson), the ballet mistress who holds the secret to the Phantom’s tortured past. Through Giry, Schumacher provides deeper insights into the opera house’s turbulent back-story. Madame Giry becomes instrumental as to why the Phantom is in the opera house in the first place. On stage, Giry was rigid and harsh with the ballet girls, but in the film she’s made to be more romantic and compassionate.

Fifth, the opera’s new enterprising managers, Gilles Andre (Simon Callow) and Richard Firmin (Ciaran Hinds), enact yet another variation of the Odd Couple. Andre is theatre bluff, whereas Firmin is business-minded. They are viewed as twins, representative of the new bourgeoisie, who have made a lot of money in scrap metal and are now rather excited about buying and belonging to a new artistic milieu.

Also of benefit is the portrait of the opera’s troupe as one large extended family, one that goes beyond kinship and biological bonds. The opera house doesn’t only represent the professional careers of Madame Giry and the other troupe members–it’s their most meaningful place, their whole life.

But will all the improvements, there’s still the sour note of Minnie Driver’s over-the-top performance as La Carlotta, the company’s temperamental diva-in-residence. Self-absorbed and insecure about her singing, La Carlotta provides some comic relief to an otherwise somber picture, but, as played by Driver, she calls attention to the artificiality of her character and to the fact that she is the only cast member who doesn’t sing.

My lack of excitement about the quality of music of the stage production applies to the movie version as well. Some of the songs don’t promote the action in the manner of a good, integrated musical. Moreover, for a long musical, there simply are not that many different songs.

That said, among the film’s highlights are Think of Me, an aria launching Christine from chorus girl to starring soprano, Angel of Music, as an intense duet between the Phantom and his new protg, Phantom of the Opera, the musical’s signature tune, which also depicts the seduction of Christine at the Phantom’s lair, All I Ask of You, Christine and Raoul’s romantic rooftop serenade, with the Phantom in hiding.

While watching the musical’s costume ball, I was reminded of Minnelli’s costume ball in American in Paris, with its sumptuous black-and-white costumes. Here, it’s a spectacular ensemble piece that touches off the Phantom’s most elaborate campaign of terror.

The Point of No Return, the chillingly fiery duet between the Phantom and Christine that takes place during the premiere of Don Juan Triumphant, his own opera composition, is powerful and touching.