Eva Duarte is a young woman with aspirations to move up through the social status of Argentina from the 1930s through the early 1950s. Guided by a musical narrator, Che, we see that Eva climbs the ladder by climbing in bed with anyone who can help her attain her goals. She goes from being a fashion model, to radio and then movie star. It is then that she uses her status to meet Colonel Juan Peron, a man jockeying to one day become President of Argentina. She sees Peron as her next rung to climb, and he leaves the military to pursue their common goal of helping the workers and the poor. Soon they're a couple and he's elected president. Eva then uses her position to fulfill her own agenda.
Like many historical figures, Eva Perón, the flamboyant, controversial first lady of Argentina from 1946-1952 who passed away prematurely from cancer at age 33, became prime dramatic fodder after her death. And the musical Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, creators of 'Jesus Christ Superstar,' based upon her life became an international sensation, winning several 1980 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and making stars of Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. For years, talk of filming 'Evita' swirled around Hollywood, but its all-singing, no-dialogue format worried producers who doubted its potential appeal in an era when musicals were out of fashion. Many actresses coveted the juicy role, but when the name of pop singer and part-time movie star Madonna became attached to the project, it finally got the green light.
Though her success in films was, at best, spotty, The Material Girl seemed an inspired choice to portray the fiery, ambitious South American diva, who hailed from humble poverty and used her feminine wiles to reach the pinnacle of power. After all, didn't Madonna share the same background and employ the identical strategy to climb the rungs of the music industry ladder? Eva and Madonna could be termed kindred spirits in the manner in which they manipulated situations, adversaries, and the media to their advantage, and their iron wills and insatiable need for recognition and acclaim fueled their hungry egos. But could pop star Madonna tackle the challenging score and adopt the technically proficient singing style necessary to put over the role? Sure, Stephen Sondheim wrote some songs expressly for Madonna in 'Dick Tracy,' but the demanding Andrew Lloyd Webber numbers of 'Evita' were a completely different animal, requiring a trained singer with a multi-octave range.
To her credit, Madonna studied hard, and under the tutelage of director Alan Parker and with the support of co-stars Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce (a Broadway veteran), the pop icon files arguably her finest screen portrayal, capturing Eva's early effervescence, thirst for excitement and fame, and cool, calculating demeanor. She's also beguiling as the more mature matriarch of Argentina, basking in the adoration of her people while enduring scorn abroad and battling an encroaching illness that would eventually short-circuit her glamorous life.
Musically, however, Madonna robs Eva of some of the chutzpah and passion that accelerated her rise and endeared her to her people with muted, slightly breathy vocals. While it would be delusional to think she could match the full-throttle, brassy style of LuPone, whose electrifying performance all but ruined the role for anyone else, I expected more from Madonna. Her tones are clear and, at times, beautifully pure, but her ultra-restrained delivery forces her to back off high notes, take some phrases an octave lower than written, and shy away from showy finishes. Yes, Broadway's larger-than-life style often doesn't translate well to the screen (belting can sound abrasive and gentle nuances carry more resonance), so adjustments must be made, but the musical approach Parker takes with 'Evita' - be it a conscious artistic choice or due to Madonna's limitations - dilutes the hefty levels of excitement that permeate this very powerful piece.
Fans of the show will also notice some structural changes. The song 'Another Suitcase, Another Town,' originally performed by Peron's teenage mistress, is given to Eva (does Madonna really need another number?), and a rousing, hard-rock tune that was cut before the London premiere is at last reinserted into the score - 'The Lady's Got Potential,' which chronicles the social upheaval leading to Juan Perón's coup from the perspective of narrator/common man Che (Banderas). A brand new song, the Oscar-winning 'You Must Love Me,' a lyrical ballad plaintively sung by a declining Eva, also finds its way into the film, and though it's a strong addition musically, it slows down the second act (despite some counterbalancing deletions), elongating Eva's already marathon march to the grave.
Just as Madonna can't equal LuPone, neither can Banderas best Patinkin, at least vocally. But whereas Patinkin's tenor at times seemed too pure and perfect for the grungy Che (who in the play was a revolutionary), Banderas brings a grittier timbre to the role, and his smoldering glares and Latin heritage lend his performance a refreshing realism. Who knew the Hollywood heartthrob could sing, and his presence adds a welcome element of machismo to the proceedings. The British Pryce doesn't look like a native Argentinian, but his well-drawn portrayal of Perón nicely supports Madonna, giving her a solid anchor upon which to lean.
As a filmed musical, 'Evita' lacks the pizzazz and scorching soul of 'Chicago' and 'Dreamgirls,' but ultimately honors its source. It drags a bit toward the end, but Parker keenly captures the South American ambience and class struggles, military upheaval, and political skullduggery that defined the Perón era. It's difficult to construct enough interesting visuals to match every line of the score (some scenes seem slightly repetitive), but Parker manages nonetheless to keep viewers engaged. Purists may decry the deletions, switches, and additions, but that's Hollywood, and on the whole, this adaptation is pretty faithful and a fine tribute to a beloved show.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Evita' comes simply packaged in a standard case with no extra fanfare for its 15th anniversary. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. When the disc is inserted in the player, previews for 'The Odd Life of Timothy Green' and 'Castle: Season 4' immediately pop up, followed by the static menu with music.
'Evita' received a much-needed makeover for its 15th anniversary and Blu-ray debut, and the results are largely spectacular. A huge improvement over the previous DVD release, the image possesses a lovely warm glow that accentuates the period flavor of this musical, yet contrast and clarity never falter, resulting in a picture that's fresh, vibrant, and devoid of any imperfections. Just a smattering of grain enhances texture, lending the initial rural scenes a salt-of-the-earth feeling that immerses us in Eva's humble early home life. When the action switches to cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, colors become brighter and deeper, and the picture adopts a more vivid timbre. The reds of Eva's lipstick and fingernails stand out, while patterns exhibit lovely variances of shade. Black levels are rich and solid, whites are strong, and fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout.
Close-ups are sharp, but retain a slight gauzy look, and background elements, such as propaganda posters and interior decorations, are easy to discern. Shadow detail is also strong, with very little crush inhibiting the image, and no noise, banding, or aliasing infringe on one's enjoyment of the film. This is by far the best 'Evita' has ever looked on home video, and fans of this classic musical will be pleased.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track offers clear, robust sound that highlights the soaring score. A wide dynamic scale allows highs to peak without any risk of distortion and lows to provide welcome weight and resonance. Surround activity is present, as the music effortlessly fills the room, but distinct action in separate channels is rare. Balance is quite good, with songs lyrics never competing for supremacy with the music, yet instrumentals are never compromised.
Vocals are always easy to understand, but then again, I'm extremely familiar with the score. Though he generally enunciates clearly, Banderas' accent at times gets in the way of some phrases, but that's a minor issue. Effects are kept to a minimum, but those that are employed add a bit of punch to the track. No imperfections get in the way of the clear audio, making this lossless effort a pleasure to listen to and a marvelous tribute to a legendary work.
It's too bad Disney didn't take advantage of the 15th anniversary of 'Evita' with regard to supplements. A retrospective documentary, audio commentary, and/or photo galleries and a soundtrack CD would have been great additions to this package, but sadly none of them appear here. All the extras from the previous DVD have been ported over, which is a plus, but fresh material is always a bonus.
As a film, 'Evita' isn't perfect, but despite some uneven moments and pacing issues, Alan Parker's solid adaptation does justice to one of the all-time great musicals. More of a profile of Eva Perón than a full-scale biopic, 'Evita' offers glimmers of insight into the personality and motivations of a fascinating figure, and features a knockout score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Madonna proves she's more than a pop icon by meeting the material's rigorous vocal demands and filing an often striking portrayal, and both Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce support her well. Disney's 15th anniversary edition celebrates the film with a pristine video transfer and wonderful high-def audio, but skimps somewhat on supplements. Still, this release is a big step up from the film's previous DVD offering, and musicals fans and admirers of the Material Girl shouldn't hesitate to pick it up. Recommended.