The long-awaited film of Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera, Evita, faced great expectations on a scale almost as epic as the film itself. It seemed the future of movie musicals (and, in this case, Madonna's acting career) rested on this single film. Working with a substantial budget, director Alan Parker (The Commitments) let it ride, and Disney made its money back and then some. Parker's Evita can also claim artistic success: with a screenplay credited to Parker and Oliver Stone, the film is a pretty much ideal big-screen adaptation of the material, which becomes convincingly cinematic.
Madonna takes center stage as Eva Perón, the controversial figure of post-war Argentinian politics. Perón's legacy has been a political football since her death at age 33 (the film starts there, in 1952). Was she merely a social climber, aspiring to money and fame? Or was she the woman of the people the Perón government made her out to be? The through-sung musical by composer Webber and lyricist Tim Rice acknowledges Eva's obvious ambition as well as her empathy for Argentina's poor, of whom she was one. It's the right approach, and though the rock opera format works against any real depth, Stone and Parker are able to depict, a bit more literally on film, the tug of war between regimes and revolutions.
The first movement concerns Eva's hunger to make it from provincial Chivilcoy to "B.A.--Buenos Aires--Big Apple!" on the coattails of men, beginning with Agustín Magaldi (Jimmy Nail). The songs "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" and "Goodnight and Thank You" dramatize Eva's penchant for trading up, and she eventually sets her sights on the likewise upwardly mobile Col. Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce). She serenades him with the promise "I'd be surprisingly good for you," and truer words were never sung: it doesn't take long for the power couple to install themselves in Casa Rosada as the President and First Lady of Argentina. The oligarchs and Eva look upon each other with mutual disdain, but the people love Evita, especially when she begins a program of social reform that sprinkles, if not spreads, the wealth to the peasants.
Though Elaine Page originated the role of Evita in the West End and PattiLuPone owned it on Broadway, there's something right about Madonna seizing the role on film. She's been celebrated and reviled in ways similar to the reception of the character, who boasts of bringing "just a touch of star quality" to everything she does. Madonna functions well in embodying the character's sexual freedom and take-charge attitude in career and relationships (parts of a gender role reversal the material fulfills); if her performance often seems the stuff of her own music videos--carefully posed and impeccably remote--it fits a musical that runs no deeper but allows the audience to judge Eva by her actions. (Rice probably based most of Evita on Mary Main's biography The Woman with the Whip, an account later opposed by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro's would-be corrective Evita: The Real Lives of Eva Perón.)
Pryce, a fine actor with musical theater experience, is well-cast as Peron, though the part is underwritten. The big surprise is Banderas, strikingly good in the juiciest part of narrator Che (implied to be Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara). Banderas sings strongly and cuts a dashing figure with plenty of personality as the cynical voice of the people who eventually, grudgingly accepts that Evita isn't all bad. The picture easily nabbed the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy; more notably, Webber and Rice scored the Academy Award for Best Song for the newly added number "You Must Love Me."
Though Evita drags at times, it certainly never lacks for pomp, and Parker has given the film a brutal energy appropriate to the story. The film is paced with the pulse of a nation experiencing change. While always aiming for a grounded realism to counter the inherently unreal quality of a musical, Parker cleverly interweaves dance as both a show-stopping and vividly storytelling element, and uses film to its every advantage in expensive and explosive musical montages of parades, marches, and military overthrows. The music consists of well-orchestrated, earworm themes, and Tim Rice's lyrics, though uneven, cumulatively give the story a measure of complexity in the interpretation of an icon.
Disney gives Evita its Blu-ray debut in a 15th Anniversary Edition with excellent A/V specs. Though it appears to be an issue of source photography rather than a digital artifact, the picture does at times go noticeably soft around the edges, but otherwise this is a nicely detailed, warmly rendered image with rich, true colors; black level is spot-on, which is key with the typically dark photography. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also provides a strong next-format upgrade, adding robustness to an already well-mixed, smartly balanced sound design.
Bonus features also offer an improvement over the previous DVD. Though there's too little historical context provided, there's a very nice production doc in "The Making of Evita" (42:13, SD), which includes fascinating set footage and interviews with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, director Alan Parker, producer Andrew G. Vajna, and stars Madonna, Antonio Banderas, Jonathan Pryce, and Jimmy Nail. Also included are the "Music Video: 'You Must Love Me'" (3:16, SD) and the "Teaser Trailer" (1:54, SD).
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