A review requested by K. Wild, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The 1996 feature film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Evita is, generally speaking, just fine. It's biggest limitation, frankly, is that it's an adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's musical Evita, but that show and preceding concept album was neither man's worst hour, at least. There are alternate universes where they got a much better film Evita, though: one directed by stylistic madman Ken Russell in the late '70s, or even the same exact one we got in our universe, directed by Alan Parker, only it stars Michelle Pfeiffer. And I must confess that I am jealous of the musical lovers in those universes. Because our Evita is just fine... it's just fine.

That being said, adapting Evita into a movie was always going to be a hideous amount of work, and it was perhaps never going to turn out right. The source material isn't a dramatic play with passages of dialogue set to music to demonstrate intensified emotion or particularly important scenes; it's really more of a staged song cycle, much like Webber and Rice's earlier collaboration Jesus Christ Superstar. Compared to the utter dog of a film which that show was turned into in 1973, Evita looks like an uncompromising triumph. But it still leaves the movie with a structure that won't construct, and while Russell made a song cycle into the crazyfucker masterpiece Tommy, as Parker himself did with Pink Floyd: The Wall, both of those movies got to cheat. They both had concepts that not only permitted, but outright demanded a psychedelic treatment, and so both of those films get to turn into florid visual trips hung along the spine provided by an arty rock group's concept album. Now, I'm not saying that there could not be a psychedelic Evita, and if there was, nothing in this world would have kept me from it. But it's no surprise at all that Evita isn't psychedelic in the least.

The thing that it has as a story surrogate relates, broadly and with dubious accuracy, the life of Eva Perón née Duarte (Madonna), born illegitimately in 1919 in rural Argentina. It tracks her laser-like focus on sleeping her way into modest radio stardom, which put her in position to meet Colonel Juan Perón (Jonathan Pryce, who looks about as much like a "Juan" as I do like an "Ichiro") at a charity gala in 1944. They married, and she threw herself into a fiery populist campaign to get him elected president in 1946. Together they (mostly she) were extravagantly beloved by the people of Argentina, until her stunningly premature death from cancer in 1952 rocketed her to the position that she still occupies of secular saint.

Fleshing that sketch out is where things get a bit rocky because, well, the film really doesn't (I'll plead ignorance as to whether the show does: I've never seen Evita staged, and I'm familiar only with the 1976 concept album that would be considerably re-worked for its 1978 theatrical debut). Parker does what he can with that favorite trick of silent filmmakers, the Zooming Newspaper Headline, but the almost totally sung-through story offers very little room for context or historical depth, and while that might play in the concert-like surroundings of live theater, the trappings of prestige cinema are too concrete, and Parker's directing too drably normal to survive such an abstract storytelling register. Evita doesn't end up feeling like a movie, but a series of music videos stitched together by montages. And, frequently interrupted by montages: one of the small number of brash stylistic tricks that Parker trots out, and probably shouldn't have, is to use impressionistic flashbacks and flashforwards to pep up what would otherwise be static moments of characters just standing there singing for a few minutes, and while I admire the effort, it doesn't land. We came for "Don't Cry for Me Argentina". We did not come to see "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" turned into a repository of footage we just watched, like, 40 minutes ago.

The music videos have the merit of being inordinately handsome, at least; with production design by Brian Morris and cinematography by Darius Khondji (who received his solitary Oscar nomination to date for this film), Evita looks lush and costly, but not at the cost of being stuffy and lifeless. It's a film of much grandeur, with no subtlety about it whatsoever, but it feels Big and Epic and Important in a way that very little Oscarbait actually manages to do. And within that framework, Parker's staging of individual moments - when he and editor Gerry Hambling can be bothered to let the action play out in chronological order, at least - certainly manages to be sure-footed and impeccably dramatic: the quick flow of the story through the flippant "Good Night and Thank You", or the jagged visual rhythm in "And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out)" even manage to make a virtue of the ragged holes in the story's chronology.

Inasmuch as Evita was going to be primarily naturalistic, then, Parker's treatment of it is as good as it was likely to be. That's still limited by the story structure, and by the songs: though the rock music he relies on is a weird and sometimes unpleasant fit for a story of '1940s Argentina, Webber hadn't yet hit the wall of insipid mediocrity by the time of Evita, but Rice in the '70s was outright deranged, and the lyrics in Evita are baffling as often as not. Nothing matches the swirling vortex of madness found in the loopiest passages in Jesus Christ Superstar - the man who perpetrated "Like a jaded, jaded, faded, jaded, jaded mandarin" set that bar far too high to jump over it again - but there's plenty of choice "what the fuck were you thinking" moments, in places like "I came from the people, they need to adore me / So Christian Dior me..." in the aptly named "Rainbow High" or "Although she's dressed up to the nines / At sixes and sevens with you" from the iconic "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" itself. The film's solitary new song, "You Must Love Me" - specially designed for the purposes of being a hit Madonna single - doesn't quite come out unscathed (the word "must" connotes "are commanded to" too strongly for the line's primary meaning of "I guess you love me, huh" to naturally flow out), but the Rice of '96 is sufficiently calmed down that Evita manages the rare - maybe unprecedented - feat among stage-to-film musical adaptations of having its original, awards-courting composition be the standout number.

All that was baked in, though, and would have been a problem with any adaptation. But this particular Evita could still have done better with a better cast, and with no other changes been a considerably stronger film. Pryce's crisp British aura was a poor fit for Juan Perón, and he's not believable as a dictator, but the role isn't all that big. The male lead is actually Antonio Banderas as Ché "Not Guevara, Alan Parker Didn't Like That", the mysterious figure who drifts in and out of Evita's life as a host of different characters, always probing her conscience and snottily passing asides to the camera that clarify that for all her goodwill and charm, Eva had some massive limitations as a human being. What with the benevolent dictatorship and all. Though Evita is petrified to death of actually engaging with specific politics, so any attempts to actually analyse the Peróns' effect on Argentina is doomed to die in infancy. But anyway, Banderas is excellent in a role that lacks any interiority and specifically forbids an actor from faking it. It's all attitude and rolling the lines around as he sings them, and he's got that down cold.

But then there is the matter of the superstar albatross around the film's neck. It's easy to see why Madonna identified with the role and wanted it; it's easy to see why the studio wanted her. But she's just not good. The demands of the role tax her range considerably, and the dramatic flourishes all tend to flatten out (her "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" is a particular flat spot, in exactly the place that movie needs to put all its chips on a big showstopping rouser); she hits the notes, but frequently it audibly costs her to do that. That's bad enough, but she is a terrible actress, analysing the words in her songs like a pop singer and not the lead in a work of musical theater, and so her emphases are close but rarely exactly right. Her body language, meanwhile, is utterly helpless; she uses her arms to vaguely indicated and stress thoughts, like a malfunctioning audio-animatronic version of Mussolini. The only time she seems to understand what emotions should be foregrounded on her face is during Eva's sickness, when she adopts a saggy, weary look that almost manages to sell the pathos of the sequence, but without a strong foundation preceding it, it's hard to care.

Evita is so single-mindedly focused on Eva herself that no production, no matter how great all the constituent elements were, could survive the kind of stiff, wholly artificial and forced performance that Madonna gives. And of course, many of the constituent elements here are not great. There are enough individually good parts that I really wish I could fake it and give it a pass - Khondji was in excellent form when he shot this, which counts for an awful lot - but nope. Evita minus Evita is a washed-out slog, and all the lovely settings and handsome staging in the world can't compensate for that.