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Phantom of the Opera, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 August 2006

Image“The Phantom of the Opera” tells the story of orphaned ingénue Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) who is taught by a masked tutor living beneath the Opera Populaire in Paris. In love with Christine, the deadly Phantom (Gerard Butler) will stop at nothing to put Christine in the spotlight, but though initially attracted, even deluded, Christine is ultimately repulsed by his impulsive violence and his deformed appearance. Gaston Leroux’s crowded tale of mystery, terror and tragic romance has stirred filmmakers’ imaginations for over 80 years and has been adapted over a dozen times for film, stage and television. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s smash hit stage musical is undoubtedly the most successful of them, having run on Broadway, London and internationally since 1986.

Joel Schumacher’s film adaptation of the Webber musical comes fairly late in the game (too late by far for stage leads Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman, originally going to appear in a 1990 film), but its sumptuous visual treatment, enormous budget and full-bodied orchestral recordings energize it with new life and excitement. There are occasional awkward anachronisms in dance style, undeveloped plot threads and an over-the-top gaudiness to elements of the design, but the basic story and characters are solid and affecting.

Rossum is a pretty and believable Christine and when her beautiful, show-stopping rendition of “Think of Me” makes her an instant star on the stage, we as an audience understand completely. Emotionally, the film lives or dies on Christine’s reactions to the Phantom, and here she also shines. Rossum’s occasionally wordless reactions to the Phantom vividly convey her conflicting emotions; one feels her alternating fear, pity, adoration, fascination, horror and love with a palpable intensity. As a result we’re as riveted and intrigued as she is and completely seduced by the Phantom’s tragic torment. Additions to the stage show (like the recurring flashback structure) don’t harm the film, but the Phantom’s story flashback and a cemetery swordfight seem tacked on. A few bits of clunky plotting and foggily-motivated actions are directly adapted from the stage show. Minnie Driver is completely miscast (she’s way too young and scrawny to play the role) and her cartoonish Italian accent is a distraction.

Gerard Butler makes an alluring, intriguing and appropriately tormented Phantom. He’s not a professionally trained singer and his voice lacks the softness, glassiness and range of Michael Crawford, but he makes up for vocal shortcomings in passion and intensity. His voice is a bit rougher which makes his Phantom a bit edgier and more dangerous than an actor with a lighter and more graceful voice would convey.

Patrick Wilson’s singing is strong, and as Raoul he’s a daring and capable lead. The filmmaker’s and Webber’s sympathies are clearly with the Phantom, though and Raoul comes off as an occasionally pig-headed and bland lump in comparison. It’s not Wilson’s fault—it’s the design and intent of the character. Wilson has one of the most unintentionally camp lines of dialogue about three quarters of the way through the film.

While a film of this subject matter and theatricality is best served in a huge theatrical setting (it was a knockout at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood), the HD DVD disc raises the home experience nearly to the level of the theatrical one. The HD DVD transfer makes for a perfect demo disc. The rich and gaudy palette of the colors and the predominance of jam-packed wide ensemble shots are perfectly served by the increased sharpness and detail offered by the format. The colors are vibrant and rich with deep blacks and warm golden tones conveyed with accuracy and noise-free image stability. The sound is naturally loud and has a range and tonal presence that is frequently stunning. I’ve listened to the CD soundtrack many times and the HD DVD audio has much more breadth and power. The huge orchestra used for the film score (110 pieces) is recorded and encoded with its explosive power and majesty completely intact. The fireworks that precede “Masquerade” have a nice bass punch and pop. On the down side, this HD DVD, one of the first wave of releases has the volume setting much lower than the norm for HD DVD or DVD titles. It’ll require you to turn your receiver up about 15-20 notches, but be warned: remember to lower the receiver volume back down after you’ve watched the disc, as other discs with high volume settings may damage your speakers with the settings that high.

“Behind the Mask: The Story of the Phantom of the Opera” featurette (65m) is a superlative documentary on the development and creation of the stage show, something rarely given detailed coverage in the home video arena. It’s filled with amazing clips and footage such as placeholder actors singing rough, unpolished versions of the famous songs at Lloyd’s summer festival at his private estate. Also included are interviews with most of the key participants who are frank and honest about the development of the musical and participants that were left behind for whatever reason. Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford are not included, which would seem an error, but they’re well represented by clips from the stage show and excerpts from promotional music videos that made the rounds back in 1986. Their crucial contribution to the musical is warmly discussed by several of the participants as well. The French Opera house that is the basis for the original story is also shown, and most tantalizing is footage of the lake (occupied by either a large catfish or small shark) and catacombs below. It makes for fascinating viewing and for fans of the stage show, the disc is worth purchasing for this documentary alone.

“The Making of the Phantom of the Opera” is a 3-part featurette (totaling 45m), not as detailed or satisfying as the “Behind the Mask” featurette, but is interesting, including plenty of behind-the-scenes footage. It’s a couple of notches better than the usual EPK extended commercial, but something’s tangibly missing from it. One yearns for more discussion on the reasoning for some of the creative additions or changes made while adapting the stage show into a musical. The set needs a Webber/Schumacher commentary or conversation to tie things all together. The additional scene (3m) is a solo of the Phantom singing “Learn to be Lonely” a wonderful, touching song that may sound familiar—a rewritten version sung by Minnie Driver plays in the end credits. The Singalong (5m) is a bit of on-set silliness that must have been put together for the wrap party. It consists of members of the production crew each singing a line from the title tune edited together in sequence.

For fans of the film and the musical, the HD DVD is a worthwhile upgrade and makes a nice show-piece of the format for audiences who may be new to the material.

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