Page to Screen: The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

phantomoftheopera2004

The Phantom of the Opera
based on the musical based on the novel

★★★★☆

2004 • 143 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures

Crimson Peak’s box office may not be what Universal wanted, but I have been having a ball seeing it hit home with its intended audience: gothically and/or Romantically inclined women of all ages. I’ve seen (and, of course, promptly misplaced) tumblr commentary indicating that this was exactly what they yearned for as preteens when their mainstream and more current peers were focused elsewhere. All of this delighted sighing over romance and stylized frights brought me back to my own adolescence.

In 2004, back when I was a young preteen full of unspeakable urges (queer ones, not Byronic hero urges—well, not those Byronic hero urges), it was The Phantom of the Opera that captured the bloody hearts of the preteen Romantic hordes.

I mean, let’s face it: The Phantom of the Opera boasts a lot of similar elements as Crimson Peak. Beautiful, crumbling architecture, death looming in the shadows, young love, beautiful young women rising above their stations, gorgeous costumes, and brooding. Of course, there’s a Phantom in the sewers of Paris rather than [SPOILER REDACTED] in the attic, but both looming threats are surprisingly seductive. Oh, and there’s songs.

I am a recovering theater kid, and I spent a lot of time and energy as a teenager gnashing my teeth over just how inaccessible musicals were to me. It will surprise none of you that I am more attached to a musical’s book than its soundtrack, which my overactive imagination could easily populate with my own production values. I once came across a translated libretto for Der Glöckner von Notre Dame (the musical version of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which ran in Germany for three years in the early aughts, but never got past the tryout stage Stateside last year) as a kiddo and practically fainted. Official filmed releases of musicals were very important to me (I took my high school theater troupe to see a screening of RENT on Broadway), but actual movie musicals were the Holy Grail.

So I have very specific memories of watching the trailer for The Phantom of the Opera and getting goosebumps when that chord drops in and the footlights go up. Eleven years later, I haven’t encountered a movie musical that makes me feel the same way. It’s not that The Phantom of the Opera is my favorite musical (that would be the ever-troublesome Rock of Ages, because I am nothing if not predictable), but rather that it’s the rare movie musical that’s not ashamed of being a musical.

The movie musical has had a rough go of it in the twenty-first century; Chicago may have won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2002, but it still made sure to frame its musical numbers as occurring within Roxy Hart’s mind. This skittish approach towards acknowledging that musicals are, in fact, musicals has touched almost every major studio musical produced since then. Mamma Mia escaped it on the virtue of being a jukebox musical. Les Misérables gritted up an already gritty musical and put its actors through (emotional) hell. Into the Woods’ production values were darker but its story was certainly lighter. And Jersey Boys barely deigned to acknowledge that it was a musical. Something about the ebullient artifice inherent to musical theater is being constantly deemed too “theatrical” for a film.

The Phantom of the Opera, in contrast, embraces its artificiality to the hilt. Part of that is the story itself, since it’s set largely backstage at the Paris Opera House, but a large part of it is because it’s a Joel Schumacher joint. It’s willfully fake and willfully camp, in a way that gloriously serves this film (but not, say, Batman & Robin). By the time we hit “The Phantom of the Opera” and the film transforms into the greatest glam rock music video ever made, we’re on that other side. There’s no hesitance of whether or not this is all too much; if it fits, it goes in.

And that means, perversely, that The Phantom of the Opera has aged better than a lot of other modern movie musicals that are more tentative about their origins. I expected to sit down and have a nostalgic giggle, but it’s held up remarkably well by virtue of just believing in its gaudy, musical self. It’s not perfect—Patrick Wilson feels like an odd, although quite serviceable, choice as Raoul in the context of his current career, and Gerard Butler’s Phantom makeup is, like, a light sunburn for most of the film—but it’s great fun and unashamed about being so. We should all learn from this film’s example: musicals are awesome and need no apology.

I rented this DVD from the public library.

2 thoughts on “Page to Screen: The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

  1. Patrick Wilson as Raoul cracked me up (in a good way). I had just watched Angels in America for the first time when the film of Phantom came out, so I thought “Perfect! Drippy Joe the Mormon can be drippy Raoul now!” And that’s still exactly how I feel.

    • He’s just so deliriously bland in the role, which is hilarious, because Wilson is a fine actor. It’s like Eddie Redmayne in Les Mis—Redmayne is a very good actor, but whenever I look at Marius, I just see a beige circle. I forgot Raoul’s name at least twice while watching this and started calling him Philippe.

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