In bed with Evita

Evita: Alan Parker (PG)
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Evita rolls into town, in Alan Parker's film version, looking both glossy and superannuated - a P-registration dinosaur. This is Parker's fifth musical, after Bugsy Malone, Fame, The Wall and The Commitments. Of these, the last was the most successful, and then it wasn't the songs that were remembered but the dialogue and the characters. The songs were just songs, they didn't have to carry the whole weight of the film - narrative and emotional - as they must in Evita, which dispenses entirely with dialogue.

We are introduced to the conventions by Antonio Banderas, drinking in a deserted bar during Eva Peron's funeral in 1952. He sings directly at us, then walks out into the streets of Buenos Aires, where no one seems to be able to see him. Banderas plays Che, who seems to be an Everyman figure, a commentator derived perhaps from Brecht by way of a school trip to see A Man For All Seasons. Che pops up everywhere, in various Argentine social classes, making pseudo-cynical comments. He is not so much a dissenting voice as the show's internal heckler, there to be silenced by the heroine's star presence.

The conventions are often hard to interpret. When Che joins Evita in a song dismissing her past lovers, the stepping stones in her career, he seems briefly to be part of her household. Their eyes meet, but on what level of reality? Anyone who has seen In Bed With Madonna will find it hard not to fill the void with sub-text from that documentary, where Madonna tried unsuccessfully to seduce this very hunk.

Madonna is more than equal to the title role, but we don't get a sense of a performer transforming or transcending herself. Watching Cabaret, audiences had the feeling of seeing Liza Minelli abruptly realise and exceed her potential, but it's past that time for Madonna. Her taking the role seems like a consolidation of her stardom, a sensible mid-career investment of labour and charisma. Any psychic conflation of Madonna and Evita happened long before the cameras started turning, and isn't available to audiences now.

It doesn't help that the character has only one moment of spontaneity in the whole film, on her first appearance, when she signals with her eyebrows to her family that she has snared the tango singer Agustin Magaldi (played, bizarrely but entirely successfully, by Jimmy Nail). From that point forward, she's strictly "on".

After presenting Christ as a rock star before his time, it was perhaps not so very bold of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber to portray a South American demagogue in exactly the same light. The stylistic coherence of Evita, never very strong, now seems utterly dodgy. The lyrics incorporate borrowed tags ("The art of the possible", "Distance lends enchantment") and bits of Esperanto slang, as in "Let's get this show on the road" or "I wouldn't say His Holiness gave her the bird". Every now and then a note of strained Englishness creeps in - "I'd be surprisingly good for you" belongs in a Noel Coward song, surely, not in a practised seductress's bewitchment of a dictator-in-waiting. The music contains some almost pathologically catchy melodies, but also some awkward transitions, and some very unconvincing rock 'n' roll.

Alan Parker is at least as good a director as the show deserves, but it isn't clear whether he trusts the material. He was slated to direct the project 20 years ago, before its various contorted delays and developments, and now that the chance has come again he feels the need to buttress every song with flashbacks and illustrations. You might think that "Don't Cry for Me Argentina", in particular, a tune that lodges in the brain so fiercely that it should be classified as a cerebral parasite, could stand by itself, but no, we have visual reminders of Evita at seven, bereaved of her father, of her leaving her home town, of her dancing with strangers. Everybody on the production seems very excited at being allowed to film the actual balcony where Evita... where Evita what? She didn't sing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" there, that's for sure (it still isn't clear to me why she thinks Argentina would be crying for her anyway, since her husband has just won an election). She did something quite different.

Parker's ability to conjure up a convincing demonstration, scuffle or riot actually increases rather than diminishes the underlying kitschness of the enterprise. Argentine politics was only ever the background to the drama, not its subject, and it's still very clear on screen that the turbulent wider world bursts in only when the music is ready for it. Since this is so far from being a history lesson, it's odd to see so many revivals of that dishonoured movie device, the stack of newspapers thudding down before our eyes, the text in Spanish with the headline reading "Gold Reserves At All Time Low". Politics in Evita falls into the general category of "noises off", and Parker amplifies them to no advantage.

The death of the heroine is an operatic staple, but few heroines get as many bites at the fatal cherry as Evita in the film. First she collapses during Communion, just as Che passes out (or even away) after being beaten by government troops. They sing a duet which slips from a dance floor to a slaughter house and back in a way that may be meant to be hallucinatory, but as every song has been edited with stylised inserts, the effect is hardly different. We've seen that slaughter house in particular so many times it could be in Evita's basement for all we know. The song recapitulates the rudimentary dialectic of the whole show. In effect, it goes like this. Che: What about the workers? Evita: I am the workers. Che fades away.

In opera, the heroine's voice remains full even with her dying breath (even when she's got TB). In Evita, Madonna sings the positively last swan-song with faltering pitch and audible difficulty - one more injection of realism where it isn't wanted. But before this, the director has caused to have inserted a new song, "You Must Love Me", to explore the intimate dynamics between Evita and her husband (played by Jonathan Pryce).

It's remarkable that Alan Parker was able to extract a new product from Rice and Lloyd Webber. (It was always said that there aren't enough compromising polaroids in the world to blackmail them into working together again.) And the new song is perfectly good. It's just that it sets out to explore something that is inaccessible to a show entirely satisfied with surfaces. Even Parker seems to realise this, since he goes for no big moments after all, and no escalation of intimacy. Rather the reverse: the song is shot with the vocal as a voice-over. When it comes to this, with the voice and the face performing separately, we may as well forget all about the problematic genre of "rock opera". In fact, we might as well sit at home and watch Madonna videos

`Evita' opens tomorrow.

Next week's film page will appear on Friday 27 December, when Adam Mars- Jones will review `Surviving Picasso' and `Daylight'