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Evita

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Why don’t they make movie musicals anymore? One answer might be the death of faith. We’ve grown too cynical as a culture to accept that an alternate universe of grace — in which unspoken desires come out as song, orchestrations come out of nowhere, and extras come out dancing — could exist within our reach. Sure, we’ll buy it in music videos (most of which are about loss of faith, anyway) but not in a film where dialogue gives way to singing with the nonchalance of a man stepping off a curb. I mean, how corny is that? It’s so much easier to believe that Will Smith is keeping a lid on extraterrestrial immigration for the government.

Just because making a movie musical in the 1990s is a perverse act, though, hasn’t stopped directors from trying. On the surface, the new-to-tape films Everyone Says I Love You and Evita could hardly be more opposed. One’s the latest precious bouquet from Woody Allen; the other is an ambitious Oscar ICBM (it missed) starring Madonna and a cast of minions, excuse me, millions. But if both movies beg our indulgence as soon as the characters open their mouths to sing, neither gives us a reason we should indulge — a.k.a. characters we care about.

Not that reality buys you anything. Evita takes the historical Evita Peron and obscures her behind separate but overlapping layers of mythmaking. First, there’s the florid, hectoring fake cynicism of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera — a style that seemed like a valid post-’60s response to Tin Pan Alley tradition in 1978 but sounds like a slag heap of rock cliches now. Then there’s the Myth of Madonna, which actually dovetails quite nicely with a story about a woman who transcends her seamy beginnings to rule through image.

Madonna acquits herself well here, insofar as she locates a character in this neon parade at all. She’s at her best tossing off lovers during the ”Goodnight and Thank You” number but even manages a clear-eyed sentimentality during the schmaltzy deathbed sequences. What’s missing on tape is the sense of sonic spectacle: Even though Madonna rose to fame via MTV, and though the through-sung Evita is essentially a 135-minute music video, this over-the-top score demands to be heard in a theater — Broadway or movie — rather than strained through a three-inch speaker.

Any chance that Evita might connect with the home viewer is stymied by Alan Parker’s gaseous direction, which alternates close-ups of the star with long shots of crowds marching and rioting. Even if Evita didn’t play like a Hieronymus Bosch paint-by-numbers kit on video’s small screen, the stunning lack of perspective — historical, emotional, narrative — renders it nearly unwatchable. This is pageantry gone berserk: what Leni Riefenstahl might have made after seeing too many Webber productions. The great Hollywood musicals infused the screen with class; Evita represents the Triumph of the Crass. D+

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