I have long maintained that for the sake of preserving popular culture, we need to put the great American stage musicals on film, even the not-so-great great musicals, like Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, his longest-running Broadway show after Cats.
So now, at last, here it is, directed by Joel Schumacher with all the apropos bombast and indulgence: a semi-opera so pointless and light that it practically needs ballast to keep from drifting away. Ably cast and performed, it swings back and forth from the entertaining to the tedious, with Lloyd Webber and Schumacher, each in his own way, sharing the blame.
The movie opens handsomely enough, in 1919, filmed to look like a faded black-and-white silent-era flicker. We're at an old Paris opera house, now in ruins, for an auction of memorabilia. When the auctioneer unveils the grand chandelier, which caused mayhem years ago when it fell to the stage, an elegant and haunting special effect brings the object, and the building, magically back to life.
Suddenly it's 1870 again, with the opera house restored to its majesty and bustle. The company is in rehearsal, and the bitchy Italian diva Carlotta (Minnie Driver) throws a splendid hissy fit. Then, a piece of scenery falls, almost killing her. Was it a deliberate act by the opera's mythical Phantom (Gerald Butler)? Of course it was! And he wants ingénue chorus girl Christine (Emily Rossum) to be the new leading lady.
Little do they all know that Christine has taken lessons from the reclusive Phantom, who's an architect, designer, composer, genius -- and, oh yes, budding madman (because his horribly disfigured face led to childhood enslavement and a life of bitter isolation). He comes to Christine's boudoir from watery catacombs beneath the opera house, and needless to say, he's in love with her. But so is Raoul (Patrick Wilson), her long-lost, long-maned childhood sweetheart who's now a wealthy young vicomte.
From there, Phantom of the Opera warms over everything ever done in a musical, on stage or on film. No one has ever accused Lloyd Webber of being a Sondheim or a Hammerstein. But let's face it: Phantom is pretty unimaginative stuff. It's a spectacle of costumes and voices, strung along behind the popularity of one song ("Music of the Night") and one melody (the Phantom's theme, rendered here with the requisite thundering organ).
Unlike last year's Chicago, which came up with a concept, Phantom feels like a show where people break into singsong dialogue. (Shockingly, a few times, the pre-recorded lyrics don't synchronize perfectly with the performers' lips.) It's completely without imagination or sensation, and even less so: When we finally see the Phantom's face, it's a shock to the movie-going audience -- but we should have seen it earlier, so it would be a shock only to Christine. Or am I asking too much of a musical that people once visited Manhattan to see when they could have been seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch?