“Evita” has more in common with an opera than it does a movie musical. Apart from a few words scattered here and there, no one has any dialogue that isn’t sung, rather than spoken. For film audiences, that’s unusual, and it places quite a burden on the librettist and the composer. But when you have workhorses like Tim Rice (“Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” etc.) and Andrew Lloyd Webber (“The Phantom of the Opera”) doing all the heavy lifting, it turns out to be not much of a problem.
Webber’s music is hauntingly original and effective, while Rice’s lyrics manage to convey the information that’s missing without a standard narrative and scenic construction, while also incorporating a constant sense of interpretation. There’s humor in the lyrics, as well as wry commentary and irony. That’s almost essential, because the songs move so quickly from one to the other—with Antonio Banderas serving as the ubiquitous bard that unites the scenes—that there’s little time for the audience to reflect or process the information.
Banderas and Madonna, in the title role, are superb, but with “Evita” it mostly depends on whether a viewer can or will accept the operatic style of presentation. It’s certainly not the standard way of movie storytelling. It’s more fluid, lyrical, and impressionistic—like one enormous 135-minute montage. You get a pretty good sense of Evita’s lowly beginnings as a “bastard” whose father died when she was very young, and in her promiscuous search for a man to take her out of that sleepy little Argentinian village to the more exciting Buenos Aires. You follow her as she strives to become somebody—a model, an actress, a radio star—and you see her use men as they once used her. Payback, but also part of her grand plan to become one of Buenos Aires “Big Apples”—high society people of position and power. And, of course, you see how she goes from man to man and officer to officer, always ladder-climbing, until the last rung: Juan Perón.
As I said, you get a good sense of the plot and her life with this operatic format, but it takes a quick scan of the Internet to see that Peron was a colonel serving as Secretary of Labor in the military government when she first met him. Likewise, while the lyrics mention she was 15 when she began her journey to the top, it’s a head-snapper to read later that she was only 26 when she became the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 until her death by cancer six years later. That isn’t a spoiler, because the film begins with two funerals juxtaposed, one of them Eva Perón’s. The rest is told in flashback.
There are some beautiful songs that tell her story, chief among them “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina”—the strains of which are woven skillfully throughout the film, so that it resonates with symphonic power. It’s probably the one song that people can remember, yet, as each song plays, you can’t help but appreciate how accomplished it is. Sometimes, though, the visual storytelling and the songs clash—as when we watch tanks rolling, union protestors marching, cavalry cutting down people with their sabers, all while peppy music plays. Asynchronous sound is used jarringly but effectively elsewhere, as well.
The music and lyrics are a strength of this film, and though the actors face the challenge of projecting character without the benefit of dialogue, they all manage nicely. Jonathan Pryce does an especially fine job as Juan Perón, as does Jimmy Nail as the troubador Agustín Magaldi. The film takes a few liberties with the truth, preferring to rely on legend rather than historians’ versions of the Peróns. But director Alan Parker (“Mississippi Burning,” “The Commitments”) knowingly chooses to further the story of a folk hero, not to debunk it. And he handles the flow like an operatic pro. The end could have been cut by one half and been more effective, but that’s my only complaint.
The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer provides a mostly exceptional picture, though it’s worth noting that some scenes have heavier background grain than others, with the long shots also pulling more grain and, as a result, less distinct edges. Black levels are heavy and the colors varying in saturation levels depending upon the mood of the scene. The more militaristic scenes are desaturated, for example, while the “Buenos Aires” number is one splash of color after the next. I saw no artifacts, though, and no evidence of attempts to artificially smooth out noise. “Evita” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
My only complaint about the audio mix is that some segues go from very quietly sung scenes to BLARRING ones, and that requires a constant toggling back and forth or the tolerance to watch the film at a slightly higher volume than may be comfortable. That said, while the audio isn’t immersive, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 still has plenty of power and a rich-sounding timbre. The low bass kicks in mostly during explosions and big numbers, but the rear effects speakers are active throughout.
This is the 15th Anniversary Edition, which makes it almost embarrassing that there are so few bonus features. There’s nothing new made especially for this edition, only “The Making of Evita” (42 min.), a better-than-average documentary because it incorporates fly-on-the-wall techniques in showing us the creative talents in collaboration, problem-solving. Other than that, the only bonus features are the Madonna music video “You Must Love Me” and the teaser trailer.
“Evita” won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical and an Oscar for Best Original Song (“You Must Love Me”). It wasn’t nominated for Best Score, because there really isn’t a score. It’s song after song, non-stop, telling the story. If you can accept that, “Evita” will be a rewarding sensory experience unlike most other Hollywood musicals you’ve seen.