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PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, Patrick Wilson, Miranda Richardson, Minnie Driver
Director:  Joel Schumacher
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  See Review
Length:  141 Minutes
Release Date:  May 3, 2005

"Perhaps we can frighten away the ghost of the past...with a little illumination!"

Film ***

The Phantom of the Opera had been slated by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to be turned into a motion picture as early as 1990.  It might have been better served had it come sooner instead of later.  Original London stars Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford were once expected to reprise their roles, but as time passed, so did their chances for film immortality.  Likewise, many stars over the years were connected with the role of the Phantom, from John Travolta to Antonio Banderas, but one by one, they fell away from the project.

The only constant in the efforts to bring the international stage success to the screen was director Joel Schumacher.  After seeing his movie The Lost Boys in the late 80s, Lloyd Webber pegged him as the man who would direct the filmed version of Phantom.  And though it took over a decade, Schumacher finally realized Lloyd Webber's version, albeit with a cast of largely unknowns.

The resulting picture is bland, but beautiful.  It's the kind of movie where you won't be able to look away, but your mind may wander a bit in the margins.  Having never seen the stage version myself, I can't make educated comparisons, but I think the film's biggest problem is suffering from moments that would have been captivating live on stage, but feel a little stagnant flickering on a screen.

The original score by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Charles Hart boasted a few unquestionably indelible songs.  However, I once owned the soundtrack CD and eventually got rid of it, and the movie made me remember why.  A great deal of the music is a little on the tedious side, and the best cues end up repeated over and over to the point where the listener has to feel like he's cramming for a test.  You walk away from the film humming the songs, but not so much out of enjoyment as out of necessity because they've driven out everything useful in your brain.

The story, based on the classic French novel by Gaston Leroux, is well known.  It involves a disfigured man (Butler) who lives in the shadowy cellars of a great opera house and takes a liking to a young ingénue named Christine (Rossum).  His ability to move in shadow and cause chaos makes people believe him to be a phantom, and he intends to use his power of fear to further the singing career of young Christine.

His devious efforts help turn the spotlight from the opera's vain and silly diva Carlotta (the hilarious Driver) and onto Christine.  But what price will she be willing to pay for the help, especially when the young Phantom's fancy turns to thoughts of love?

The story is simply sketched and probably far too short on substance to sustain a full length musical.  Yet somehow, it did just that and more, becoming one of the most loved and successful stage shows of all time.  As I mentioned, I've never seen the theatrical production, so I can only comment on the film, and in my eyes, the film seemed to slow to a crawl more times than I care to count.

And yet despite the flaws, I felt an overall sense of awe and appreciation for the picture, particularly in its technical grandeur.  The cinematography and art direction had to have been the best of last year save for House of Flying Daggers.  The opera house, with its elaborate décor, sweeping staircases, and watery underground lair is a miracle of visual conception...throw in the costumes and expressive lighting, and you have one of the most stunning spectacles imaginable.

The main problem fans will have is that there's no way to watch this film without thinking of Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford...unfair to the movie's young stars, but a fact of life.  And when you think of the show's original stars, the new ones will unavoidably suffer.  Eighteen year old Emmy Rossum is a fresh-faced find with a sweet sounding voice, but definitely lacking Ms. Brightman's power.  Gerard Butler's voice seems a little lifeless when one recalls Mr. Crawford.  Would I have judged differently had I never heard the original?  Possibly...but there's no way to know for sure.

The acting is all serviceable considering that, apart from the Phantom, none of these characters have any real depth.  Patrick Wilson didn't really inspire as Raoul, but it's a thankless role...nobody could make that walking prancing tuxedo light up.  Ms. Rossum looks suitably worried, enamored and frightened as the scenes call for.  Mr. Butler was the most striking in the last stretch of film...his grief and anger at the world around him was genuinely heartbreaking, and I have to say, I think he carved out his own small niche of Phantom lore with his performance...even if, in my eyes, he was far too young and naturally handsome for the part (the Phantom was supposed to be much older, much more hideous, and far less suave).

The music, which is now legendary, is something of a mixed bag.  I've always been enamored by "The Music of the Night", but here, it brought the momentum down to pure inertia.  I think "All I Ask of You" is one of the most beautiful tunes ever, but while listening to the young stars sing, I kept thinking of Erin, my band's lead singer, who can sing that song with such emotion and power that you can feel the vibrations of her voice in your sternum.  The movie's take seemed much more cautious and reserved, and my response to the song, which usually is a big smile and a glistening eye, was a discontented sigh.

And yet for these complaints, I still recommend the movie.  It doesn't always connect emotionally, but as a spectacle, it's second to none.  You walk away feeling like you've really seen something unique and memorable.  It's just that you probably won't be remembering the parts Andrew Lloyd Webber most hoped you would.

BONUS TRIVIA I:  Minnie Driver, despite being a good singer in real life, is the only actor whose singing voice is dubbed in the movie, because she had no opera training.  But she gets to show off her real pipes with her beautiful rendition of "Learn to Be Lonely" over the end credits.

BONUS TRIVIA II:  Patrick Wilson performs all his own stunts in the film.

Video ****

This anamorphic transfer from Warner Bros. is simply gorgeous beyond description.  The visuals are the movie's strongest asset, and this DVD services them reverentially.  I was captivated beginning to end.  The colors leap off the screen, the detail level from close up to deep is so strong as to almost be three dimensional, lines are crisp and clean...it seriously doesn't get any better than this.

Audio ****

Likewise, the 5.1 audio is thunderous and powerful...this disc offers the best sounding presentation of music recording of any I've ever seen that wasn't specifically a concert film.  When the chandelier lights up and the opening strains of the theme explode near the beginning, I was rocked back in my seat, and it was only the start.  Every tone from every instrument in the orchestra sounds pure and distinct, and the sound soars like a live symphonic event, using the rear channels to surround you with Lloyd Webber's unmistakable power.  Superb.

Features ***1/2

Disc One of the double disc collector's edition contains only a trailer, which was smart thinking...most of the available space on the disc was obviously reserved for superior audio and video presentation.

Disc Two contains the remainder of the extras, highlighted by two terrific documentaries.  "Behind the Mask" is one of the best ever included on a DVD...it's an hour plus look at how the musical show came to be, featuring interviews galore with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart, Cameron Macintosh and more.  It includes plenty of footage of the original production with Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, as well as early looks at the musical as staged at Lloyd Webber's estate, where he tested material on small audiences of friends and associates.  What a treat!

There is also a lengthy making-of documentary devoted to the film, containing interviews with Lloyd Webber, Joel Schumacher, and his young cast.  The lengthy process of getting the show translated to the screen is well chronicled.  You can watch it in three parts or all together.

Rounding out is a deleted scene, "No One Would Listen".

Summary:

The Phantom of the Opera may not have been the best movie version of the musical possible, but there are definitely aspects of it that need no improvement.  It will probably earn satisfactory marks from both the fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber's original show and the curious newcomers like me.  If nothing else, it absolutely makes for one of the best reference quality DVDs ever put on the market.

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