Film review: Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Just recently I watched this film version of the musical that has been one of the biggest musical stage sensations ever since it was first performed in 1986. I have not lived in places where big-budget musicals are staged and even if I did, I would likely not have gone to the theater to see them because the ticket costs would have been beyond my means. So I wait until they make a film version and usually watch it when they stream it.

Given how massively successful it was on stage, I was expecting a lot and was hugely disappointed in this film. It was, to be honest, quite boring and apart from a few songs that have become hits (the title song, Music of the Night and All I Ask of You), I found the whole thing underwhelming.

Not all successful stage musicals translate well to the screen. Other failures include Hair and Cats. Some notable successes were South Pacific, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Why do some fail and others succeed? It is not due to skimping in the film version. Since this film production was lavish and elaborate (as the stage production was reputed to be) the difference may well be due to the fact that what people find spectacular when seen live on stage may seem just ordinary to film viewers who are used to special effects. It also depends on the strength of the music. The successes I listed each had many more memorable songs than this one.

Another factor may be the quality of the story. The story of Phantom as adapted in this production has many problems that were often laughably absurd, as noted by film critic Anthony Lane in a brutal review in the New Yorker.

The plot is impressively free of anything that does not smell of unpasteurized melodrama. The bulk of it takes place in 1870, in Paris—ah, Paris, so overwhelming in its impact that while some of its blessed citizens remember to speak English with a French accent, others do not. We are at the Opéra, where everything and, if possible, everybody that can be gilded with gold has received the necessary treatment. The new patron is the Vicomte de Chagny (Patrick Wilson), who is long of locks, blue of blood, and unquenchably drippy of demeanor. The in-house diva is Carlotta—played with gusto by Minnie Driver, who has the gall to suggest that there might be some comic value to be trawled from this movie, and who is therefore hastily shoved to the side of the proceedings before she can cause any more trouble. When Carlotta flounces out, her place is taken by Christine (Emmy Rossum), who until now has been, yes, a simple chorus girl, and who brings the house down on, yes, her first performance.

But wait. There is more. Christine, who in other respects seems perfectly sane, believes that she has been taught to sing by the ghost of her father. In fact, her tutor is a nice lad in half a hockey mask who lives under the floorboards. He is the Phantom (Gerard Butler), his career ambitions include theatre management, and to get to his lair you go through the looking glass, along the creepy corridor, down the spiral staircase, take the first horse on your right (what the hell is a horse doing down there?), hop into the punt, drift under the dripping portcullis, past the multiple mirrors, and, bang, you’re there, right in the middle of a bed shaped like a giant eagle. Watch out for its beak when you bend over to take your boots off.

Fans of the original production will claim that one had to be there, but then again it presumably bumped into the same stumbling blocks that beset [director Joel] Schumacher’s movie. These include: (1) Why does the picky Parisian audience fail to boo when Christine opens her mouth and sings not in the manner of a true operatic soprano but in the moaning, miked-up warbling of every other Lloyd Webber heroine? (2) Is that really dry ice swirling around Christine in the graveyard scene, or is somebody cooking breakfast beneath her outspread cape? (3) When the Phantom finally tears away his face gear, what, exactly, is the big deal? Is there anything wrong with his mug that couldn’t be solved by fresh fruit, Botox, and a healthy squirt of Visine?

Film critic Roger Ebert also found plenty of problems with the story though he sort-of enjoyed the film.

Lon Chaney’s Phantom in the 1925 silent had a hideously damaged face, his mouth a lipless rictus, his eyes off-center in gouged-out sockets. When Christine tore off his mask, she was horrified, and so was the audience. In the Lloyd Webber version, now filmed by Joel Schumacher, the mask is more like a fashion accessory, and the Phantom’s “good” profile is so chiseled and handsome that the effect is not an object of horror but a kinky babe magnet.

There was something unwholesome and pathetic about the 1925 Phantom, who scuttled like a rat in the undercellars of the Paris Opera and nourished a hopeless love for Christine. The modern Phantom is more like a perverse Batman with a really neat cave. The character of Raoul, Christine’s nominal lover, has always been a fatuous twerp, but at least in the 1925 version, Christine is attracted to the Phantom only until she removes his mask. In this version, any red-blooded woman would choose the Phantom over Raoul, even knowing what she knows now.

But what I am essentially disliking is not the film, but the underlying material. I do not think Lloyd Webber wrote a very good musical. The story is thin beer for the time it takes to tell it, and the music is maddeningly repetitious.

I love the look of the film. I admire the cellars and dungeons and the Styx-like sewer with its funereal gondola, and the sensational masked ball, and I was impressed by the rooftop scenes, with Paris as a backdrop in the snow.

Some still feel Michael Crawford should have been given the role he made famous onstage; certainly Gerald Butler’s work doesn’t argue against their belief. But Butler is younger and more conventionally handsome than Crawford, in a GQ kind of way; Lloyd Webber’s play has long since forgotten the Phantom is supposed to be ugly and aging and, given the conditions in those cellars, probably congested, arthritic and neurasthenic.

This has been, I realize, a nutty review. I am recommending a movie that I do not seem to like very much. But part of the pleasure of moviegoing is pure spectacle — of just sitting there and looking at great stuff and knowing it looks terrific. There wasn’t much Schumacher could have done with the story or the music he was handed, but in the areas over which he held sway, he has triumphed. This is such a fabulous production that by recasting two of the three leads and adding some better songs it could have been, well, great.

Those two reviews pretty much sum my own feelings.

Here’s the trailer.


  1. consciousness razor says

    I’m going to quote a chunk from the musical film wiki page, since it covers a lot of ground:

    During the 1940s and 1950s, musical films from MGM musicals regularly premiered. These works included: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), High Society (1956), and Gigi (1958). During this time, films outside the Arthur Freed unit at MGM included, Holiday Inn (1942), White Christmas (1954), and Funny Face (1957) as well as Oklahoma! (1955), The King and I (1956), Carousel, and South Pacific (1958). These films of the era typically relied on the star power of such film stars as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Kathryn Grayson, and Howard Keel. They also relied on film directors such as Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli as well as songwriters Comden and Green, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and the Gershwin Brothers.

    During the 1960s, films based on stage musicals continued to be critical and box-office successes. These films included, West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), The Music Man (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins (both 1964), The Sound of Music (1965), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Thoroughly Modern Millie (all 1967), Oliver!, and Funny Girl (both 1968). In the 1970s, film culture and the changing demographics of filmgoers placed greater emphasis on gritty realism, while the pure entertainment and theatricality of classical-era Hollywood musicals was seen as old-fashioned. Despite this, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Cabaret (1972), 1776 (1972), Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), and Pete’s Dragon (1977), as well as Grease and The Wiz (both 1978), were more traditional musicals closely adapted from stage shows and were strong successes with critics and audiences. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, musicals tended to be mainly coming from the Disney animated films of the period, from composers and lyricists, Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Stephen Schwartz. The Disney Renaissance started with 1989’s The Little Mermaid, then followed by Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), and Mulan (1998).

    As you said, your expectations regarding “spectacle” are quite different. Phantom just doesn’t have anything very spectacular for a film, no matter how hard they may try. So, it can seem like high production values on stage, but mediocre at best for a movie (in the early 2000s) which is pretty boring and mostly an empty shell. If you asked me (which you didn’t) as a non-fan of musicals to begin with, even the more recent “big hits” like Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Les Misérables, Into the Woods, etc. are pretty close to unwatchable.

    There is the bit about “realism” (gritty or otherwise) which is more of an expectation in a movie than in theater. I suppose I’m probably not alone on this…. I tend to be a little more forgiving of older movies on that front. That includes tons of musicals from the 40s, 50s and 60s — note that this is a large proportion of all films that were produced back then, so there were bound to be at least some moderate successes (and much more crap). Anyway, when they mention how audiences changed, many of them still do like/accept older ones that simply fit into a different mold. It’s another category of movie, and that’s okay. But that’s over, and they have to make new stuff now. So, you just view a movie from (roughly) the 80s or later as being a completely different beast from one that was made several decades earlier.

    The result is that it’s harder to make a newer musical film work, unless it’s not supposed to be taken too seriously — maybe a silly comedy and/or something written for children (and animated). So…. Willy Wonka? Fuck yes. The less “real” it is, the better. And more of that would be fine, if such a thing were possible again. Even The Producers is at least serviceable, if not exactly remarkable. But not so much a musical like Phantom, unless it were changed so much to be practically unrecognizable.

  2. Allison says

    Of the stage-to-film flops you mention, the only one I have seen is Hair, and I was very unimpressed by it.

    The problem, IMHO, was that they missed the point of the show. Hair was part of (or a product of) of the counter-culture, and it was about challenging conventional culture and morality. It was shocking and political and in your face. There is a reason it was controversial and some people would bring megaphones to shout at the actors.

    When they made the movie, none of that was there. It treated the whole thing as something like an extended fraternity prank. There was nothing shocking or controversial in it. So really, what was the point of making the movie in the first place?

    I wonder if that sort of thing is an issue with the other film flops. Moving a stage production to film is, I imagine, sort of like turning a book into a movie: it’s a process of reimagining the essence of the story into the language of film.

    From what you’re saying, it seems to me the problem was that, like many Broadway shows these days, it’s more about spectacle and wowing the audience — sort of like Radio City Music Hall productions. All of the criticisms you quote basically say that there wasn’t much story there. And while film can do spectacle, it’s a very different sort of thing — e.g., Ben Hur or even Lord of the Rings. Nothing like live performance spectacle. You couldn’t do Ben Hur as a stage production.

  3. blf says

    I saw Phantom on stage in London — but not the production you (probably) think — many yonks ago. There was a (brief) period where two stage productions were running, and I saw the “intruder”, not the (then) long-running production.


    What a fecking boring story. Ridiculous, crap music, and utterly absurd. But… There is the famous almost-impossible to sing duet, which can be very well done, e.g., Floor Jansen & Henk Poort — Phantom Of The Opera (Beste Zangers 2019) (video). Henk Poort is apparently considered one of the best Phantoms ever, and learned how to “growl” just a few hours before this performance in honour of Floor Jensen, who (at the time) was a singer with with the metal band Nightwish, and had previously named Poort as one of her heroes.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Allison @#2,

    I had the same reaction as you to Hair, that they had stripped from the show much of the politics that gave it its edge. It may be because the stage production premiered in 1968 when the counter-culture and anti-Vietnam war sentiment was at its peak and thus the play’s themes resonated. The film was released in 1979 when the war was over and the counterculture was subsiding and that may have caused the elimination of that emphasis.

  5. rockwhisperer says

    You mentioned Jesus Christ Superstar, and the best rendition I’ve seen is a stage version that toured the UK some years ago, but that presentation was also filmed. I and others here in California enjoyed that recorded version immensely. (To search for it, look for the version with Tim Minchin as Judas.) But the point is, I was watching a video of a live performance. I think that matters immensely.

    Film and stage are two remarkably different genres, and those who try to shoehorn one into the other invariably produce something that disappoints most people. I’m at best an occasional moviegoer and also live performance attendee, because both venues now challenge my hearing, and because movie soundtracks reliably overload my brain and give me amazing headaches. But I’m still glad to use a streaming service or buy an occasional DVD, and watch things on my terms with my audio control.

  6. SR0101 says

    You say you have not lived in places where big budget musicals are staged, but in fact the theater district in Cleveland is the second largest in the US and has featured not only Phantom, but just about every other musical that has been staged on Broadway.

  7. Holms says

    I remember seeing this on stage in 1990, in the first Australian run with Anthony Warlow and Marina Prior. The plot left no impression on me, but the music was very impressive. Rossum does quite a good job of her part even though it Webber wrote it specifically for Sarah Brightman’s voice; I’m not sure I agree that Butler held up his end quite as well though. Compare Mano’s Music of the Night link to the original* with Michael Crawford; he has amazing control at high and low volume and high and low register. Oh and I’d add Masquerade to the list of stand-out songs.

    * Please set aside the awful direction given to Brightman in this take, it’s as if she was instructed to look braindead. I do get a kick out of her massive Elaine Benes hair though.

  8. Mark Dowd says

    I’m disappointed to see no mention of “The Pirates of Penzance”. I had it on my phone and there was a period where I would watch it once or twice a day for a couple weeks as background noise at work.

    “Oh is there not on maiden here
    Whose homely face and bad complexion
    Have caused all hope to disappear
    Of ever winning man’s affection?”

    God it’s so dumb.

  9. John Morales says

    I’m aware of Ian Dury’s opinion of Weber‘s musicals…

    Dury turned down an offer from Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the libretto for Cats (from which Richard Stilgoe reportedly earned millions). The reason, said Dury, “I can’t stand his music.”[27]

    … I said no straight off. I hate Andrew Lloyd Webber. He’s a wanker, isn’t he? … [E]very time I hear ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ I feel sick, it’s so bad. He got Richard Stilgoe to do the lyrics in the end, who’s not as good as me. He made millions out of it. He’s crap, but he did ask the top man first![28]

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