evita

The Movie Musical Project is a roughly bi-weekly essay series exploring the best and worst of movie musical filmmaking, with an eye to deriving principles from them that can be applied to a new wave of movie musicals. Join us. We brought wine.

The musical Evita is arguably the most accomplished show that either of its writers ever managed to produce. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s previous shows had often evinced a charmingly enthusiastic sloppiness that sometimes mars one’s enjoyment of them, while their work post-Evita (and, tellingly, post-each other) gradually slips into an apathetic funk with only a handful of bright spots creatively. Evita, then, sits at a singular and rarified point where the artists involved had acquired enough discipline and craft to tackle something ambitious, but were still young and hungry enough that they gave their all to these ambitions, sense occasionally be damned.

Lloyd Webber’s genre play, for as much as it still gets away from him sometimes, is given purpose here, with a firm geographic and historical setting. This is also flatly the best set of lyrics Rice ever wrote, narrowly edging out Chess. The razor-wire balance of

“What I have done…

What I did…

If I hadn’t thought…

If I hadn’t known,”

Is something that a younger Rice wouldn’t have thought of and a more seasoned Rice (har, har) wouldn’t have bothered trying. But it’s a brilliant set of lines, a complete miniature progression that gives actors delicious little ambiguities to play with, not to mention how context alters those lines when they reappear at a point where the main character is on the verge of seizing power.

Evita, as most will know, recounts the story of Eva Peron, the First Lady of Argentine dictator Juan Peron in the 1940s and 50s. She has no direct equivalent in the Anglophone world; the closest we may have in terms of legacy is Margaret Thatcher, for a variety of reasons. Eva is a deeply complicated figure, and that complication inspires the show’s most obvious but also most daring decision: to make the complication the point.

The show is structured around a series of subversions. Almost never does it permit a note of sincerity to play for too long before a cynical jab undermines it, and similarly never is the cynicism allowed to hold the stage for long without a reminder of sincere sympathy poking back in (it is no surprise to me that the best-remembered song of the show is also the moment where the sincerity is allowed to play the longest: “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”).

If you haven’t realized how perfectly suited this approach is to the team of Lloyd Webber and Rice, you probably aren’t terribly familiar with their careers; the entire dynamic of their collaboration always centered on Webber’s sincerity and Rice’s cynicism being in violent competition and producing better and more passionate art as a result. A better illustration of how important this conflict was to their work could not be conceived than their respective solo careers, in which Lloyd Webber’s unchecked sentimentalism went on autopilot and Rice’s cynicism frequently curdled into apathy. Rice managed to find another Lloyd Webber in the composers from ABBA, but Lloyd Webber never managed to find another Rice. By the time they reunited for Lloyd Webber’s ill-fated Wizard of Oz revival, the magic was gone and both were checked out.

The point of all this is that codifying their creative conflict into the text of the show was the most perfectly Lloyd Webber-Rice thing they could have done, as well as a fitting cap on what turned out to be the last hurrah of their partnership.

To take one example, the character of Che in Evita is such a perfectly Rice character that every line brings out the best in him as a lyricist. Che exists outside of the diegesis, a Greek Chorus-like figure who tends to get all the best put-downs and is the show’s most frequently used device for tempering the direct emotional appeal of a woman who is such an unstoppable force of nature that the force eventually becomes too much for a mortal frame to contain (as with Jesus in their previous show, Evita tends to regard its protagonist’s death as a matter of destiny, what must be done in order to achieve their true fate as an icon).

Every time we might get too invested, Che pops in to remind us that Eva was basically running interference for a fascist, but simultaneously, every time we start suspecting that this might be a single-minded and mean-spirited takedown, we start sympathizing with Eva’s struggles and with her causes.

The show ends with a quiet, twisted reprise of material from earlier make-over number “Rainbow High,” now sung at Eva’s funeral:

“Eyes, hair,

Face, image,

All must be preserved.

Still life displayed forever,

No less than she deserved.”

This is as succinct a summary of the show’s thesis as could be asked for, an acknowledgment of her inspirational status as a cultural and political icon, alongside the biting acknowledgment that in spite of all that, her job in the regime was, figuratively, to put lipstick on a fascist pig.

It makes a certain aesthetic sense why adapting this show into a movie would be appealing; it certainly feels cinematic onstage, with a widescreen approach that must have seemed (at least superficially) ripe for direct cinematic treatment.

Once you start getting into the weeds, however, the problems start emerging. There is a lot of history to burn through, which isn’t as much of a problem onstage because the abstraction inherent to the medium and the fluidity of stage-time is well suited to it. Everyone talks about how much influence Jesus Christ Superstar had on Hamilton, but in terms of structure and pace Evita is probably the closer influence. Hamilton, to be sure, uses more overt chronological tomfoolery than Evita does, but its basic toolbox is taken straight from it; years pass in moments, characters slip in and out of the diegesis as needed, and the heightened reality of the stage covers for basically all of it.

Film is inherently more concrete in terms of setting and time than theater is – the whole idea is to look like a window on something that could actually be happening – and thus something must be done in adaptation, particularly in this case, to make the elements play as they are meant to, or at least as a suitable facsimile thereof.

Fortunately, film has its own technique, entirely native to itself, of conveying activity and progression over time: the montage.

As legendary French film auteur Jean-Luc Godard famously put it, “film is truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie.” That is to say, cinema’s prime illusion of being a window on a solid reality elsewhere is challenged every time you cut to another scene, or even another vantage point. The audience is forced to re-orient themselves, or even – if the cut is drastic enough – begin to unconsciously question the verisimilitude of the medium. But in filming musicals, achieving a carefully controlled sense of fabricated or heightened reality analogous to that which the stage achieves just by being itself is the entire point. Could frequent cutting between scenes, then, not be used to achieve this heightened reality? And could not that heightened reality be used to get us into musical numbers?

This, I assert, is Evita’s greatest coup, as well as its prime contribution to the meta-discourse of film musicals. The screenplay by director Alan Parker and (at first bafflingly, then progressively less so) Oliver Stone re-conceives the film almost entirely around montages. I have seen no other movie musical attempt this on such a grand scale either before or after, which is why I tend to conclude that the fact that it doesn’t entirely work isn’t fully this movie’s fault. The first to venture out is ever the first to stumble, after all.

The film takes us on a mildly bewildering whistle-stop tour of Eva’s life, sometimes allowing music to play over the montages, sometimes slipping into the diegesis for the ensemble (or, more usually, Che) to sing a few lines, and then back into the montage.

At its best, this approach successfully simulates the heightened reality of the stage that allowed the packed storytelling to work in its original form and venue. It is also frequently whiplash-inducing, and there are times when you have to be watching very carefully or else you will miss key information that explains why an otherwise baffling representative montage is there.

The filmmakers seem to have fully understood that this was their biggest adaptational asset, since from the very start they try to establish that this is how the film intends to go on. From the announcement of Eva’s death we shift into a sepia-toned flashback of what we eventually must surmise is her childhood. So far, so clear; the color pallette of each period is kept distinct, the focus on Eva in each setting should clue viewers in to the fact that she’s the focus. But here is where we begin to see the problems that will plague the rest of the film; we flash forward again, but now further along than before. How much longer? Who knows. Then Che starts singing and halfway through the song we get a montage of civil unrest and destruction. Are these flash-forwards? Are they speculative on Che’s part, a visualisation of how he expects things to go after Eva’s death? Then that montage begins mixing in shots that are flashbacks within the diegesis but flash-forwards from the perspective of someone watching the film. It’s a mess.

The jumble of images never gets quite as confusing again, but this sort of chronology wonk within the montages persists in places, risking audience confusion in a political story that demands clarity. This is the risk inherent in trying to build an entire film out of montages – if you go too long without resting and establishing detail, the audience loses the thread.

To a degree, this is unavoidable; in places the film has to condense so much time visually that it feels like a “previously on” summary montage of itself, only saved from that fate by the momentum of the music insistently reassuring us that this is all going somewhere.

(In another peculiar Thatcher connection, watch The Iron Lady for an example of how odd the result can be when the same scrapbook approach to biography doesn’t have songs to lean on.)

It will be fruitful here to place Evita within the larger catalogue of its director, Alan Parker. For a man who explicitly set out with the goal of directing one film in every genre before he died, Parker has returned to the movie musical well multiple times in his career. Needless to say, this is not the last appearance he will be making in this series. Happily, he is one of the most gifted movie musical directors of the post-60s era, and Evita is probably both the most challenging material he tackled in his movie musicals and the place of his greatest innovation in the field. I wish he had gone on to direct even one more movie musical, but I can also hardly blame him for retiring, as he did, in the early 2000s.

His signature move for bridging the gap between music and reality has always been footsteps (see Bugsy Malone and The Wall), so naturally a story in which nearly all the political players are military men is catnip to him. On multiple occasions Parker uses marching to lend the scene a pulse that gives the viewer a brief visceral foothold during even the most confusing montages. The primordiality of rhythmic walking is an essential part of Parker’s musical-dramatic aesthetic, and he seizes the chance to use it whenever Lloyd Webber’s music gives him an opening.

In fact, the degree to which the montages do work is probably largely to be credited to Parker’s skill and control. However confusing the montages can get, however much they might sometimes cut too quickly for easy comprehension, they work more often than they don’t, and more often than not are exquisitely well timed without becoming overbearing a la the most frantic parts of Moulin Rouge.

And, of course, their very existence is the larger point; in this series we will discover multiple methods of attempting to attain the heightened reality necessary for film musicals to come across, but I think there is something very much worth noting about a veteran director, late in his career, essentially discovering a new one.

Alas, for all the conceptual brilliance on display here, there are some theatrical devices that Parker had less idea what to do with (not that he didn’t try). Prime among these is Che, who is by his nature a non-diegetic character, and hence one ill-suited to film, yet one whose role in both size and expositional volume is simply too crucial to be cut.

I don’t recall particularly struggling to grasp his non-diegetic status when I first saw the film as a teen, but revisiting it many years later I am struck by the fact that there isn’t a clear point where it is established that he is non-diegetic. We first see him in the movie theater scene in which Eva’s death is announced to the people. Certainly we glean that he is different from the extras around him, in part because he is pointedly not mourning, in part because Antonio Banderas is an instantly magnetic presence (more on that later). A little while later in the flash-forward we see him striding between crowds of mourners without them taking any notice of him, which is probably where young me twigged to what was going on. But even this requires a great deal of inference. Certainly he is the only one directly addressing the audience at that point, but that doesn’t last long, there are eventually whole ensembles singing to camera, and while Parker successfully manages through montage to generate sufficient distance from them that we don’t ask whether they are meant to be diegetic or not (another mildly brilliant discovery), their presence still muddies the waters as far as Che’s status is concerned.

What ultimately emerges is an unintentional suspense meta-story of when precisely the audience realizes that Che isn’t really there. For some viewers it may never happen, and they’ll just be confused. For some, it may come right after the opening number when he reappears unchanged in the past.

The choice to play it this (unintentionally confusing) way may result from how the character has changed between versions of the show.

In the original stage show, at least as written, he is Che in the sense of the generic colloquial moniker taken from Spanish, roughly equivalent to “guy” or “dude.” He is the Argentinian everyman, the voice of the common folk.

In the Broadway production, director Hal Prince, who never met a leftist subtext he couldn’t make into just text, explicitly and specifically rendered him as Che Guevara. I have mixed feelings about this choice, mostly because Guevara brings with him a lot of historical baggage that is frankly unhelpful either to the story or to the theme.

Therefore it is unsurprising that the film ultimately chooses to split the difference, rendering Che as not just an everyman, but the embodiment of working class solidarity. In various montages we see him rallying with workers, working at a metallurgy plant, joining street protests, and being pursued by union-busting police – the film is not subtle about this, and it is possible to read Che’s seamless transitions between roles as a commentary on industrial capitalism’s view of the worker as a fundamentally fungible, interchangeable commodity. Che is a leftist Bert, essentially, and as with Bert his frequent changes of profession would be much harder to swallow, even on a purely visual level, were it not for the charisma of the actor embodying him.

Which is as good a segue as we’re likely to get into talking about the cast.

It’s easy to forget just how crucial casting is until it goes wrong, or at least goes different. The original Broadway cast of Evita was big and brassy. Patti LuPone was Eva, Mandy Patinkin was Che, and Bob Gunton was Peron. Each one was loud and brash, and they balanced each other out. LuPone’s performance emphasized Eva’s nature as a primal force, which served to make Patinkin’s otherwise excessively caustic Che seem at least of a piece with the rest, and necessitated Gunton’s broad dictator caricature for Peron.

The movie, on the other hand, has Madonna. This is not necessarily fatal, Madonna is by no means terrible in this movie. But, like with a lot of pop stars who move to acting, Madonna’s main asset is her poise. This, too, is not necessarily a problem, poise is a tremendous asset when playing a famous stateswoman, but one of the keys to Eva’s character is that she is more than that. Madonna is most at home in the role when Eva is being treated like royalty, not so much when she is trying to convincingly portray a poor but ambitious rural girl. The poise also makes her seem cold as she takes a string of increasingly powerful lovers early in life, certainly as compared to Lupone’s more you-go-girl evocation. In fact, the film leaves itself much more open to accusations of misogyny than the stage version simply by virtue of casting someone whose poise makes it look like the filmmakers are portraying her as a merciless man-eater. And I honestly don’t think that was necessarily the intent; as many shots as we get of her heartbroken ex-lovers, they are all framed to be more than faintly ridiculous – we find them pathetic, not sympathetic.

Not that I think the filmmakers were insensate to the potential problems that casting a very different sort of leading lady might engender. Where in the stage version Peron verges on a snarling caricature of a Latin-American dictator, the movie chooses to cast Jonathan Pryce.

It is not immediately clear where Pryce’s Peron lands in his larger body of work, whether with the High Sparrow in the tradition of deliberately underplaying broad villainy, or with The Engineer in the tradition of notionally non-white roles he probably shouldn’t be playing. Perhaps there is room in both. No matter, he was clearly chosen for a very specific reason, and he does not let the side down: he manages to be compelling without acting Madonna off the screen. While this does constitute a change to the character, the dynamic between his character and Eva’s remains intact, which is far more crucial. He is still a dangerously intelligent leader, but one who is clearly unlikely to last in the absence of his more stage-friendly wife. For what it’s worth, that much still works.

The only problem comes in with what is paradoxically maybe the movie’s best feature: Antonio Banderas as Che. Banderas is so intense and magnetic that the movie accidentally becomes about him in spite of itself. Oh, on the page it’s still very much Eva’s story, but the audience more often than not will find itself drawn to Banderas’ raw charisma.

In short, it’s her story, but his movie.

The problem, again, is that this stacks the deck against Eva, throwing off the delicate balancing act of the show. For what it’s worth, I think it still works, but now only by the skin of its teeth. The debate as to whether the show is hagiography or character assassination is as valid as any dispute where the correct answer is “both and neither” can be, but by virtue of casting alone, the movie opens itself to a much stronger case to be made for the latter than usual, certainly than in the Broadway production or even the un-ornamented libretto.

The casting has other less far-reaching effects, of course. The vocal score is adjusted for Madonna’s voice, which is to say it is made easier. I do not regard this as so much of a blasphemy as some might be tempted to do, as Lloyd Webber tends to write ludicrously and unnecessarily acrobatic voice parts that make little accommodation for any but the most superhuman singers. Certainly Eva’s part loses some of its raw ferocity in the process, but with Madonna in the lead we should already have marked that down as a loss.

Somewhat more striking is the age issue. The story demands the seemingly impossible of a single actor – to precisely embody a person at all points between mid teens and late twenties. Fortunately, the stage is built for such impossibilities. As Peron notes, “distance lends enchantment.” An actress on stage can portray Eva at 15 and at 26, differentiating them through changes in body language without the risk of any of the conventional signs of age disrupting the illusion. Film is more piercing and more merciless in this regard, which is a roundabout way of saying that despite some admirable acting choices, Madonna remains singularly unconvincing as a teenager. The one upside (shared by some portrayals in the stage version) is to unintentionally lend the impression of destiny to Eva’s meteoric rise by making her feel somehow wrong as a wide-eyed teenage bumpkin; she was always Evita, it seems to say, she just had to grow into it.

One of the other changes that unexpectedly works also seems to have been an accident, at least in effect: the addition of the song “You Must Love Me.” In theory, the song is as cynical and cumbersome as these things can get, the seemingly obligatory new ballad added to an old score in a vain attempt to snag a Best Original Song Oscar (“Suddenly” from Les Miserables is the soporific nadir of this trend, narrowly and nobly rescuing Beauty and the Beast’s “Evermore” from the bottom spot). Unusually, however, as we have discussed, the movie had accidentally unbalanced itself through casting, shifting focus and sympathy away from Eva and towards Che. Therefore, almost uniquely among adaptations to which ballads are added, there existed a genuine sympathy gap for it to fill, and it does. Even as it drags out what was already an overlong final quarter of the show, it manages to inject a note of humanity into Eva’s character at a wrapping-up point when we are otherwise primed to see her in only the most arch, symbolic terms. It is, in spite of itself, one of the best adaptational decisions in the film.

More controversial is the movement of “Another Suitcase, Another Hall” not only between scenes but between characters. The song originally belonged to Peron’s teenage mistress whom Eva replaces, a peculiar but highly memorable choice that gives surprising depth and focus to a character we have not seen to this point, nor will ever see again, seemingly for no reason but the unexpected poignancy of it all. Largely by virtue of this unconventional choice, the song is one of the best-remembered in the show, maybe second only to “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.”

In this meta-context, it should not be surprising that this song was given to Madonna in the film, sung right after her initial affair with the tango singer Magaldi ends. Without the surprising dramatic context of its original incarnation, the song does not stand quite as tall as before but still serves a dramatic purpose not too dissimilar to “You must Love Me.” It shows Eva hitting rock bottom before she can begin her dramatic Cinderella rise through the ranks of Argentinian society, allowing her a moment of pathos that softens our impression of a character that, as played in the film, remains mostly cold and hard throughout.

And what of the mistress, now bereft of her signature song? She gets a brief reprise of the number, pleading with Peron before being dismissed by Eva. This rejection of a girl so reminiscent of her younger self does underline the character’s transition from ambitious country girl to newly minted politician, but also serves to somewhat undermine our sympathy for her engendered by the song proper.

It is worth zeroing in on this scene, however, for one key decision only made possible through playing it on film. Eva tells the dumbstruck mistress, “I like your conversation, you’ve a catchy turn of phrase,” but for the next line, although it is still delivered to the mistress, her eyes turn to Peron as she sings with a wry, damning smile, “You’re obviously going through some adolescent phase.” Cut to close-up of Peron, who ashamedly averts his eyes. A moment this relatively quiet and subtle would not have been possible onstage; playing it for the back row would have required signification more openly accusatory, which would have defeated the purpose. Eva is not shaming Peron, she is quietly establishing a power dynamic in which she is firmly the dominant player.

There are lovely little filmmaking touches like this throughout. Consider the merciful cutting down of “The Art of the Possible” to a stump of itself so that it can serve as a gracenote instead of the grinding halt to proceedings that it is in the stage show. Consider the deliberate underplaying of the “We’ll…You’ll be handed power on a plate” moment, which is honestly the way it should always have been played. Consider the subtle dig at both Magaldi and Lloyd Webber with the brief shot of Peron impatiently checking his program in the middle of the reprise of “On This Night of A Thousand Stars.” Consider even the touches that don’t work, like trying to establish Eva’s hometown friends as characters already in her life so that when they pop back up for chorus interludes later they won’t feel as incongruous as they still ultimately do.

For these reasons, and many others, I have long felt that Evita was ripe for re-appraisal. Its status as an almost memetically bad adaptation, in my view, omits consideration of not only the massive challenge the show presented to its adaptors, but also the degree to which those adaptors genuinely rose to the occasion and levied their considerable skill against the task.

Like every movie musical below the god-tier of works like West Side Story, Cabaret, and Little Shop of Horrors, Evita is deeply compromised. Its extravagance sometimes veers into camp, its information density into impenetrability, its juggling act into audience confusion. But its approach to the movie musical format is genuinely novel, and as students of the form we ignore it to our cost. The technique of extensively combining the stage musical’s extended sequence with cinema’s montage of attractions to produce a sense of heightened reality is one we will see again from this point, and I hope that someday Evita will receive due credit for helping to develop those techniques. The movie itself may be largely forgotten, but the truth is it never left us.

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