WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: Penniless young Eva Duarte works her way – via a series of increasingly powerful men – to Buenos Aires and a position at the side of rising army star Colonel Peron. Using her background to appeal to the masses, Eva becomes beloved by the people of Argentina – her saintly status ensured by an early death: but to one observer at least, Eva has abused the people’s trust, and money, in a riot of self-indulgence.
Although Disney kept the tradition alive in animated form, the full-blooded live-action musical was a rare beast indeed in the late 1980s and 90s (A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, err…). So a firm belief in the material or an especially brave gamble must have been behind the decision to bring Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita to the screen, even with the star presence of Madonna doing what, theoretically, she does best in the title role.
Like the theatrical production of the show, Evita begins with a film being disrupted by the announcement of Eva Peron’s death and our narrator Che (Antonio Banderas) commenting on the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Argentine populace. However, Alan Parker immediately forgets the boundaries of the stage to display how both grief and anger erupts onto the streets of Buenos Aires; and also to show us Evita’s past, right back to her time as an illegitimate child in a poor, outcast family. We catch up with Eva as a teenager, her ambition to get on in life leading her to use nightclub singer Magaldi (Jimmy Nail) as an introduction to Buenos Aires, although he returns to his wife and Eva is forced to rely on other men as she looks for work.
Her undignified position – all the men naturally get something in return – slowly improves to the point where she becomes an actress of sorts and is introduced to rising military man Colonel Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce). An affair begins, which leads to marriage after Eva successfully garners popular support for Peron’s release when he is arrested; but from the moment the Perons gain power themselves (not through entirely democratic means), their promises to rule for the poorest in Argentina are forgotten, and although Eva promotes herself as a fundraiser, her exotic lifestyle, including a ‘Rainbow Tour’ around Europe, brings disquiet from the country’s disenfranchised in addition to the rumblings of the Elite who hated her all along. The exertions of travelling and self-promotion take their toll on the young woman and suddenly we are back where we came in.
The problem with film adaptations of stage musicals has always been the same: to what extent do you try to make naturalistic something as inherently artificial as bursting into song mid-sentence? Perhaps the best compromise has come in Rob Marshall’s Chicago, but here Parker goes all out – all the way out to the country itself, in fact – to recreate the Argentina of the day. This results in a film that looks and feels both handsome and authentic, and the fact that the script is more or less sung-through helps; but since the film now contains chanting crowds, riotous mobs, tanks, trains and so on, the music has been turned up several notches to compensate.
This would be fine if the music were sympathetic to the visuals, but for the most part it’s a loud, blaring mixture of disconnected lines where a tune holds for a line or two before being overtaken by a completely different one, often in a different tempo and key. The awkward attempts at recitative are barely improved upon by many of the songs, which clumsily rattle through historical details (such as the military coup) in rock’n’roll style. Lloyd-Webber has never really known how to write for electric guitar and here the use of the instrument is ghastly, not that others fare much better (eg. the horrendous drumming in Peron’s Latest Flame, a nasty song all round).
It’s a personal opinion, naturally, but I think much of the music in Evita is confused, discordant and downright ugly, while the lyrics are a prolix, humourless tangle. It occasionally hits gold, with Oh What a Circus and Don’t Cry for me Argentina (the same melody, of course) proving particular highlights, while other decent tunes (for example, Another Suitcase Another Hall) are too obviously similar to the writers’ earlier work to enjoy fully. The new song written for the film, You Must Love me, is pretty enough, but unfortunately this time the visuals are a let-down, Madonna (who is generally good, though never lovable, and she struggles with low notes) failing to convincingly portray the First Lady’s fragility. On the subject of the cast, both Pryce (an old hand at musicals) and Banderas acquit themselves handily, Banderas showcasing a surprisingly strong voice even if some of the English vowel sounds occasionally trouble him.
The troubles with Evita stem largely from the stage show, then, and were it not for the soundtrack Parker’s film would have made a fine-looking biography of Eva Peron; but he’s not getting away scot-free, and the director shows a fondness for flashbacks which are surely redundant – it’s only a two hour film and the viewer hardly needs to be reminded of something they have just seen. Also, despite emphasising Eva’s struggle with being judged for her lower-class origins, in two hours of film he never really comes to a conclusion about what he – or Lloyd-Webber and Rice – is trying to say about his short-lived, much-loved heroine. Essentially, though, it comes down to this: although it’s perfectly possible for a musical with a poor story to get by on the strength of its songs – witness We Will Rock You or Mamma Mia! – the reverse is never true. There are decent moments in Evita but the best way to experience them is on the soundtrack album, with a keen finger on the remote control.