All I want for Christmas (or: All I Ask Of You)

Sunday, 27 June 2004 — 9:23pm | Adaptations, Film, Music

Regular readers can expect my reviews, or more precisely, recommendations of Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Terminal later this week – but first, to some urgent business.

It may be the month of June, but with Christmas less than half a year away, the wishlist compilation has already begun. This year, the item on the top of the list is, one might say, a rather modest request. I will admit, whenever I emphasize the magnitude of importance embodied by this very simple favour, I sound like a mother asking a little boy to clean up his room – but it’s necessary.

Joel Schumacher: please, for the love of all that is good and holy, don’t screw up The Phantom of the Opera.

In the fifties you had your fun, vibrant musicals with the Freddies and Gingers that defined a genre, colourful displays of movie magic with extended surrealist sequences like Gene Kelly’s all-dancing finales to An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. That is not The Phantom of the Opera. The epic stage adaptations of the sixties that knocked one Best Picture after another out of the park – rival gangs on the mean streets of New York in West Side Story, the loverly Covent Garden by firelit night in My Fair Lady, the whole gamut from Andrews to Anschluss in The Sound of Music, the Artful Dodger’s whirlwind pickpocketing tour of London in the “Consider Yourself” number in Oliver! – that’s what I want from The Phantom of the Opera: grand, romanticist portraiture with a sense of humanity, a new association between memorable songs and memorable scenes, not to mention top-notch symphonic orchestration like John Williams’ Oscar-winning work on Fiddler on the Roof.

We already know about one somewhat major plot change and the addition of a new song. Fine – that’s excusable, and every movie musical pulls off that kind of thing; “Something Good” in The Sound of Music comes immediately to mind. However, here is a sample of things that are not quite so acceptable, many of which are unresolved ambiguities, some of which are hopefully going in the commonsensical direction. Of the latter is “trying to be Chicago and confining musical elements to the stage rather than using the songs as the primary storytelling device.” I liked Chicago, but this is The Phantom of the Opera. Of the former: if the orchestration is not consistent with the music of the period depicted, it is nothing to me. I adore Moulin Rouge! like family, but this is The Phantom of the Opera.

The first public footage was released this weekend in the form of a teaser trailer that shows a fleeting montage of images in rapid succession. Initial impressions are as such: the sets, the costumes, the piece’s appropriateness to the period – that looks fine. The trailer linked above is fairly low-quality, but already it is possible to discern some key shots that pertain to memorable scenes – Meg Giry at the mirror in “Angel of Music”, the chandelier, the cemetary in “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again”, the Phantom punting his way down the sewers, “Masquerade” – and they look fairly good. The snow in the cemetary is an especially nice touch.

When adapting a stage production to the screen, especially a musical and more to the point, one of this calibre, one of the foremost criteria for judgment is whether or not it does something with the screen that cannot be done on stage. Primarily this deals with setting and atmosphere. In this respect, things are looking up.

The photography looks dynamic and the colours are gorgeous, but the darkness could be darker – or maybe it’s the fault of the low-quality video in the current trailer. As far as dynamism in cinematography goes, having the odd shot with a twenty-degree rotation is perhaps too modern a styling, but time will tell if this works in context of the finished work.

I sincerely hope the rapid cutting in the trailer is due to the post-production audio work being incomplete and an inability to show off any of the singing in sync with the pictures at this stage, and is no reflection of how the movie will actually be edited. Quick cuts from shot to shot that masked the flourish of the dancing worked for Baz Luhrmann (however debatably), but for the umpteenth time, this is The Phantom of the Opera. I want sustained imagery. The stage production already had sustained imagery, and between media, that’s what films are supposed to be best at creating.

Red flags: none. Uncertainties: many.

Let me make this as clear as possible – and the fact that I am writing in the first person should clue one in as to the degree of seriousness and gravity with which I speak: with The Lord of the Rings out of the way, there is no adaptation in the motion picture industry I care about more than this one. That includes you, Goblet of Fire.

So don’t mess with it. As was the case with The Lord of the Rings, anything less than a serious run for Best Picture is abject disrespect to the source material.

Seriously, Joel: do me this one favour for Christmas, and all is forgiven for Batman and Robin; and let me assure you, I take my Batman seriously.


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