20 Years On: “Evita”

The movie musical is a staple. One adaptation after another, with nary an original thought to be had before the next one graces our screens. It’s a wonder filmgoers haven’t revolted by now. Perhaps it’s just the endearing power of both mediums to tell compelling and fun stories. Whatever it is, people will keep turning out when successful and high profile musicals get turned into must see films.

The Hollywood Pictures film “Evita”, is still a musical experience worth seeing, even if it doesn’t look as grand as it no doubt once did.

This musical drama stars Madonna (“Saturday Night Live”, “Arthur and the Invisibles”), Antonio Banderas (“Finding Altamira”, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water”), Jonathan Pryce (upcoming “Taboo”, “To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters”), and Jimmy Nail (“Parents of the Band”, “Auf Wiedersehen, Pet”).

The film was directed by Alan Parker (“The Life of David Gale”, “Angela’s Ashes”) and written by Parker (“Angela’s Ashes”, “The Road to Wellville”) and Oliver Stone (“Snowden”, “Savages”). It is based on the musical of the same name by Tim Rice.

The film originally opened on Dec. 25, 1996 in a limited capacity and eventually opened wide on Jan. 10, 1997. The film would go on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one; five Golden Globe Awards, winning three; and 17 Online Film and Television Association Awards, winning seven among several other nominations and wins.

And just like that, another musical is getting up there in age! It’s kind of amazing when you think about it. 20 years old! Of course, it probably depends on whether or not you grew up with it or have always been able to enjoy it as an adult. If it’s none of these, this film could just be another film to you, and one that’s not looking like it’s going to age all that well. There are plenty of these big musicals that are doing just that. However, one can’t just blame the film’s age. The medium by which you watch it could have something to do with that as well. I watched this film on VHS. Why? Because I could and it was the only copy I had on hand, which itself surprises me. There’s something exciting about watching some film’s on VHS, so when I knew there was a copy lying around, I couldn’t pass up the chance! It’s like when I was watching “Scream”. But, it could also be why it doesn’t appear to be aging too well, and why I responded to it a bit differently than I was expecting.

Knowing your history is also going to affect how you view this film. You’ll either be fully in the know and get it right away, or you’ll be me. Lost. Only grasping what is plainly shown, and in need of no translation whatsoever, but still being limited in your understanding. Pieces are really all that get you through. Who would’ve thought that a musical would have me guessing so much, as if what was going on were part of some whodunit? I certainly didn’t. Even while enjoying every minute, and singing along from the moment the first song began, I couldn’t help but kick myself for not really knowing what was going on. The only slight upside to not being well versed in the historical events being portrayed, is that Parker, and original creators, Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber, made sure to keep things as simple as possible. Even with only fragments, you could still follow along enough to understand how Madonna’s Eva Peron got from poor beginnings to wife of the president.

Bringing that type of journey to the screen, are the principle actors, each with a lot to work with and do. That alone surprised me, which makes sense when you think about the fact that I haven’t seen this film in at least a decade, if not longer, which is definitely possible. You could feel and see from the actors, through their respective characters, passion, emotion, and find something honest in each one. Likability wasn’t an issue, even when the choices made were the wrong choices or led to the wrong outcome. Of all the things about the characters that left me in awe, isn’t really a character trait, although there are plenty of those to marvel at too. It’s more how each actor was able to bring their character to life. I find that unlike most musicals, this one really required extra work from its actors. Mind you, that’s not to say that deep work isn’t needed in the other musical films, but unlike those, this one is almost entirely presented in song. Very little actual dialogue is heard. Because of this, it seems that the actors each had to do even more work. Find a balance between acting and performing the songs. I’ll admit that it seems easy, certainly looks it, but I doubt that it was. I noticed even little hand gestures, and marveled at how they were able to do something as basic as that and still convey the right emotion whilst singing, and collectively pushing the story forward. Certainly getting the right emotional reaction from whomever their scene partner was. And while none of the performances are bad, even Banderas’ multiple characters (as he’s the Everyman character), I don’t think there’s anything that makes them truly stand out. When considered in the film, as a whole unit, they’re wonderful! Individually, they’re just good. The performances accomplished anything and everything that was needed, required, and expected.

Like with any musical, you’re bound to get caught up in the songs. With this musical film being drastically different than most, once swept up, there’s no getting out. Well, unless you absolutely hate the songs (then why are you watching?) or just don’t know them by heart. If that’s the case, it’s understandable. I didn’t even try to not sing any of the songs. I heard the first bits of “Oh, What a Circus”, and I instantly readied myself for what would be nonstop singing. The only time I wasn’t singing, which I kept to a minimum, was when I was trying to figure out what aspects of history were being portrayed. Again, not knowing fully what was happening has it’s drawbacks. Seeing as I only know the songs courtesy of this film, I have nothing to compare the singing to. I’d say these vocal performances are some of the best I’ve heard in a musical in some time, and that’s factoring in recent musicals that I like and have just revisited. For me to be able to still enjoy every aspect of the singing and songs, especially after 20 years, it says a lot about the lasting power this film will have on those who come and watch it later.

The one thing that probably won’t be able to last all that well, it’s sad to say, is this feeling of grandiosity. When watching I couldn’t help but notice how it lacked that truly epic feeling, even though it’s still pretty big in scale. You can at least understand why people were amazed at the time. Even I was still amazed. The sets, costumes, any and all props, whatever! You name it, and it still has an authentic feeling that puts you right there in the story. Perhaps this is where my watching this on videocassette may not have been the best idea. It’s old. The quality is probably nowhere near that of what’s on the DVD, and certainly not on a Blu-ray version. Maybe it’s just the approach to making it. The color tones were different than I’d expect from a film today, but that could also be the director’s choice, and even the craftsmanship in the costumes and sets, etc., would no doubt be drastically different. To put it in an even easier perspective, look at any musical from before the ‘70s. Most of it’s pretty damn bad and godawful to look at, even if it is a period set musical. But, that’s just the time. The various creatives on those films could only do so much. At the least, this film can serve as a great learning opportunity.

Musicals come. Musicals go. Musicals age. It’s just the particular cycle these films take. Not all can do it well. Perhaps part of that lies in the individual musical itself. If it’s more obscure, nobody’s really going to be paying attention; if it’s some bigger and well recognized one, everyone’s going to be expecting it to be top notch, and the various creatives will feel the pressure. They’ll know what fans will be expecting. Or, it’s simply all about the time it was made. Filmmakers can only work with what they’ve got. No amount of film preservation or restoration is ever going to change that. While this big screen adaptation seems to be doing fine now, where will it be in its cycle in another 10 or 20 years?

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