More than 130 million people have seen The Phantom of the Opera on stage since it first opened in London in 1986. It has won a million awards, is the longest running play in Broadway history, the second-longest running West End musical and its soundtrack has gone four-times platinum.
Having clocked an estimated $5.6 billion in revenue in the last 30 years, The Phantom of the Opera is considered ‘the most financially successful entertainment to date.’
The Phantom of the Opera is one other thing, however.
It is a terrible movie.
Given the immediate and spectacular success of Phantom, creator Andrew Lloyd Webber, for obvious reasons, began thinking about a film adaptation right away. (Michael Jackson approached him about playing the Phantom, apparently.) The film rights finally went in 1989, with a young filmmaker signed on to direct – Webber had seen The Lost Boys and been impressed with how the director used music in the film, and so the young auteur Joel Schumacher tied himself to the project. Originating stars Sarah Brightman, who was married to Lloyd Webber, and Michael Crawford agreed to reprise their roles.
And then Brightman and Webber filed for divorce, and the project never got off the ground.
Years passed. Brightman and Crawford moved on with their careers. Schumacher went from The Lost Boys to Falling Down to The Client to… Batman Forever. Which did well enough, despite ‘lukewarm’ critical reception, that he was brought back for the franchise-disembowelling Batman & Robin. Shumacher’s post Batman & Robin films were smaller, less bombastic affairs, and he never again reached the heights of his mid-90s fame. His name is so synonymous with the gaudy excesses of the post-Burton Batman films, however, that even now, twenty years later, they’re probably what he’s still known best for.
And all that time the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera bubbled away on the back-burner.
Until, at some point in the early 2000s, more than a decade after the show had peaked and long after it had moved from ‘amazing stage spectacular’ to ‘thing your weird cousin is still really into’ The Phantom of the Opera was finally green-lit. And, in 2004, the world was presented with The Phantom of the Opera (film), starring Gerard Butler as the Phantom, Emmy Rossum as Christine, and Patrick Wilson as Raoul.
In the role of the Phantom himself, one of the sexiest murder-obsessed singer-psychopaths in Broadway history, Schumacher cast Butler, who had no singing experience, because he was impressed with Butler’s performance in Dracula 2000.
What I discovered while watching Phantom is that, despite not having listened to the soundtrack in at least two decades, I’ve still got the entire thing memorized. Which means that, in watching the film, I found myself in the deeply weird position of knowing exactly what everyone was going to say and sing. I also saw the stage production twice, long ago – once in 1989 and once again in 1994 – but remembered the whole thing. The film looked, more or less, exactly the way I remembered The Phantom of the Opera looking.
Basically, there weren’t many surprises in store for me with The Phantom of the Opera.
Which is, in a nutshell, the problem with the entire production. (At right: four actors who are super happy to be in this film.)
The year is 1919. And elderly, infirm Patrick Wilson is wheeled into the burnt-out husk of Paris’ Opera Populaire, where an auction of the surviving effects is occurring. One wonders, briefly, how these relics survived a catastrophic fire and the depredations of fifty years of scavengers, but then one dismisses one’s concerns, because the movie is only about 2 minutes into its 143-minute runtime and life is much too short. The 1919 sequences are filmed in flickering black and white, of course. Anyway, Patrick Wilson is playing Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny. Patrick Wilson is a pretty good actor who has somehow built a career on playing sad-sacks. I mean, really. NIGHT OWL. And this is one of them. Raoul bids on a toy monkey and then gets misty-eyed over it before exchanging significant (dour) looks with an artificially aged Miranda Richardson, playing Madam Giry. And then the film bursts into colour and it’s 1870 and shit’s about to go down, MURDEROPERA-STYLE.
In one of the film’s only truly glorious moments, the camera pans through the late 19th century opera house in a single take, twisting down stairs and through corridors, dipping in and out of a colourful whirl of extras as they practice, drink, dance, fight and preen. It’s one of the few moments in the entire film that suggests what a truly great adaptation could have brought to the material – a vibrant life-force that’s otherwise missing from material that the audience is going to be intimately familiar with.
The Opera Populaire has just acquired new owners – played with awesome hair by Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds – and we meet them taking stock of their acquisition during a rehearsal for Hannibal. Minnie Driver is camping shit up in epic fashion as Carlotta, the company’s lead soprano. The new owners learn about the ‘Opera Ghost’ who insists that Box 5 always be left empty for him and demands a stipend of 20,000 francs a month. The new owners are rightfully dismissive, but Madam Giry looks on disapprovingly and makes the first of many dire pronouncements. Meanwhile, Raoul, the Opera Populaire’s new patron, is wandering around taking things in; chorus-girl Christine Daae recognizes him as her childhood sweetheart. Eventually he recognizes her, too. Sparks do not fly.
A dark figure flits about the… rafter-thingies and drops a backdrop on Minnie Driver. She flounces off and the new owners whine about having to postpone the evening’s performance until Madam Giry dolorously suggests they give Christine a go at the role. They had, earlier, been ‘hilariously’ lusting after Christine, so that’s cool. Christine, played by 16-year-old Emmy Rossum, sings and everyone is enchanted and so she sings the part that night and gets a standing ovation. Later, her dressing room filled with flowers, Christine exposits to her friend Meg that she is being taught to sing by her ‘Angel of Music.’ Meg leaves; Raoul arries; they reminisce. Sparks again do not fly. Raoul leaves… and a mirror slides open and out steps the Phantom, who leads Christine down to the catacombs beneath the opera house. He sings to her the entire time, leading her by the hand while looking back at her, which gives the scene a strange, claustrophobic feel; he puts her on a horse for about seven seconds, leads the horse to a lake, takes her off the horse and puts her in a boat, and paddles away until they finally reach the bat-cave, which is EXTREMELY well lit. Clearly the Phantom likes to live life on the edge; his lair is full of papers and fabrics and yet he leaves candles burning like everywhere when he goes haring off to stalk some poor girl. Also, I have questions about the horse, which we never see again. RIP, lair-horse.
I should also mention that Gerard Butler scream-sings all his songs. He’s not the worst singer I’ve ever heard, but given that the Phantom is supposed to be a paragon of hypnotising musical sensuality, he… fails.
Christine follows the Phantom around as he scream-sings and shows off the bat-cave, which is seriously well-appointed. The Phantom lives a plush life, y'all. I guess we know what he’s spending the 20,000/month on (many yards of red velvet). At one point he even shows off his Christine-doll, a mannequin dressed in a wedding gown. Christine, by the way, is wandering around in some fairly revealing and extremely sexualizing lingerie. I have this weird urge to mention again that the actress playing her is sixteen years old.
Anyway, Christine eventually falls asleep on the Phantom’s swan-bed (really) and when she wakes, he’s at his organ (snigger) writing something. She wanders over and, in what will become her signature move, yanks his mask off. Like, for no reason. He’s all, hey, coffee’s on the hob and she’s all WHAT’S THIS *yank*. We don’t see his face, but he gets pretty upset about it and scream-sings at her a bit. Weirdly, I’m kind of siding with him, even knowing that he’s a murder-obsessed weirdo. Eventually the Phantom calms down and takes Christine back up to the opera house.
The opera owners receive a series of letters telling them that Christine should be playing the lead role in that evening’s opera and that if she doesn’t ‘a disaster’ will occur. Naturally everyone ignores him; he replaces Carlotta’s throat-spritzer with something that makes her croak and so Christine is forced to replace her. But the Phantom is a grudgy sort; he kills a stagehand and drops the corpse onto the stage during the performance. In the ensuing panic, Raoul and Christine bugger off to go talk about their feelings on the roof of the opera house. That, naturally, leads to kissing. Somehow the Phantom is also on the roof (did he go straight after the murdering?), hidden behind a statue of a horse (RIP lair-horse; never forget) and barrels straight through the first stage of grief and into anger at discovering that the affect-free object of his sexual obsession is into rich blonds. After Christine and Raoul leave, the Phantom stands on the roof and raises his arms and makes dire vows while his coat flaps around in the swirling snow. It’s less effective than it could be.
Three months later we find the opera owners congratulating each other for three months of murder-free opera. Naturally they’re throwing a masquerade ball to celebrate. Raoul and Christine are ‘secretly’ engaged, we learn; their method of keeping a secret is for her to wear her gigantic ring on a chain around her neck. Given that she’s wearing an off-the-shoulder dress with a plunging neckline, the ring isn’t exactly hidden. She stops Raoul from kissing her in front of everyone because the Phantom might notice or something, so instead Raoul spends the rest of the scene with his arm around her. How are they so dumb? GUYS. EVERYONE KNOWS.
Anyway, the Phantom crashes the party and insists the opera house put on a performance of the opera he’s written, which is a SEXY MURDEROPERA. I’m disappointed to note that he’s not wearing his awesome gigantic red hat from the stage play in this scene. Anyway, because he’s the only person in this movie who’s not a complete idiot, the Phantom spots Christine’s ring and clocks what it means, yanking it from her neck and vanishing through a trap door. The dude is such a drama queen, seriously.
Back-story time! Madam Giry tells Raoul (dolorously) that the Phantom is actually a kid from a circus she rescued when she was a young ballerina in the company. In the flashback we see baby Phantom murder the gross dude who was keeping him in a cage; li’l Madam Giry helps him hide from the police in the catacombs beneath the opera house, and there he’s been ever since. This backstory raises a lot of questions: were they friends? Did she care for him? Did she like him like him? Was he ever sexy murderopera-obsessed with her? How did he get a horse down there? BUT WHO CARES, the movie says. All that matters now is that the Phantom is obsessed with Christine, and also super into murder.
At some later point Christine sneaks out of the opera house to take a carriage to the graveyard where her father is buried. And buy ‘buried’ I mean ‘set up in a massive tomb.’ Who paid for that? Didn’t he die a penniless musician? Anyway, Christine’s carriage is being driven by the Phantom (and lair-horse?) who is basically disguising himself Ed Wood-style, by holding his cloak up over his face. Raoul glances out a window at just the right moment to see Christine being driven away, senses that something is fishy, and jumps onto a horse to follow. Literally; he vaults bareback onto a horse and heads out into the snowy Paris day without so much as a coat. Fortunately he does remember to pack his sword, which I guess he carries around with him as he randomly wanders through the opera house without a coat on.
Once in the graveyard, Christine sings a sad song about missing her father, which the Phantom takes advantage of by basically pretending to be her father/a spirit her father sent her to care for her. I’ve been ignoring this point up to now because it’s pretty underdeveloped, but basically the Phantom initially got into Christine’s good graces by telling her he was the ‘angel of music’ her dying father promised would watch over her. By this point in the show it is clear that Christine associates the ‘angel’ with her father, despite having also (hopefully) figured out by now that the ‘angel’ is the Phantom, who is not her father but a scream-singy dude who lives in a cave and does murder for fun.
But Christine is such a blank slate it’s hard to get a read on what she thinks or knows. Anyway, the Phantom sort of hypnotizes her with his scream-singing but Raoul arrives just in time and engages the Phantom in a sword-fight. It’s 1870; why are they carrying swords around? Whatever. Fighty fight fight; Raoul somehow disarms the Phantom and prepares to kill him, but Christine (who has been very helpfully standing around watching all wide-eyed) begs for mercy and Raoul instead sweeps her up onto his horse and they ride away. This pisses the Phantom off even more.
Raoul, who is slightly smarter than Christine, convinces the opera’s owners to put on the Phantom’s sexy murderopera in order to catch him. This means talking Christine – the woman Raoul loves and intends to marry – into using herself as bait. Christine goes along with this fantastically stupid plan because she has no agency. The opera itself is a super sexy, super modern affair that leaves the audience sweaty and discombobulated, it being 1870 and all. Partway through, the Phantom murders the lead male singer and takes his place on stage; once again, no one notices, despite the fact that the dead man is half a foot shorter and 100 pounds heavier than Gerard Butler. The Phantom scream-sings to Christine, who maybe sort of eventually figures out it’s him and not the older, smaller, fatter totally different guy who was singing the part like two minutes ago. They scream-sing their sexy songs to each other and then Christine again, WTF Christine, rips the Phantom’s mask off. Right on stage! Everyone screams. Which: it’s an opera. How does the audience not just think, like ‘oh, well that seems reasonable’ and go with it? I mean, I’ve seen plenty of opera, and it’s all singing and posturing and ridiculous dramatic reveals. How is this any different?
ANYway, this audience is much better at sexy murderopera than I am, I guess, so everyone freaks out and a giant chandelier crashes into the stage and we finally see the unmasked Phantom… who basically looks like he’s got pink eye and a mild rash.
Apparently the prosthetics took four hours to apply, but honestly. It’s a 30-year-old Gerard Butler in period costume. I’m buying what he’s selling, and what he’s selling is sexy murderopera.
Amidst all the chaos the Phantom spirits Christine away and Raoul insists that Madam Giry lead him to the bat-cave. Madam Giry takes Raoul about seven steps down a staircase and then dolorously proclaims that she can go no further. Why not? Presumably the Phantom remembers that she saved him as a child? If anyone could reach through the layers of ego and self-hatred he’s wrapped himself in and actually communicate with him, it would surely be she, no?
No, so Raoul carries on and before long has fallen into an unconvincing water-trap and nearly drowns. Meanwhile, in the bat-cave, we learn that the Phantom really just wants to get married and have sex. No, really. ‘Because I’m super weird looking,’ he says (I paraphrase) ‘I’ve never had sex, so let’s get married and bone all the time.’ Christine is like, ‘you’re probably single because you’re kind of a scary murderer?’ but he insists that the issue is his looks. ‘NO ONE LIKES ME BECAUSE I HAVE MILD PINK-EYE,’ he essentially scream-sings.
Raoul escapes from the water trap and makes it into the bat-cave; the Phantom fights him a bit (there might be more sword-fighting here but I can’t remember and I can’t be bothered to go check) and then ties Raoul to a gate (why is there a gate in the bat-cave?) and loops a noose around his neck and starts tightening while Christine tries to help by standing there and staring.
The Phantom offers to let Raoul live if Christine will marry him (the Phantom); Christine responds giving the Phantom her engagement ring and then by plonking her open mouth directly onto his pink-eye-having self, which totally shocks him. Girl, that shit is HIGHLY CONTAGIOUS. Anyway, getting frenched by a girl half his age makes the Phantom briefly regret his screamy-murderous ways and he sets Raoul and Christine free. He watches them leave – Christine makes her half-drowned, half-hanged, exhausted and bleeding fiance paddle the boat because she’s the best – and then the Phantom goes full emo and starts scream-singing and bashing up the bat-cave with a candlestick while the opera house burns above him.
Did I mention that the opera house is on fire? Yeah, it is. Eventually the Phantom lifts a curtain and vanishes into a passage beyond and Meg, Christine’s friend – randomly clad in a pair of breeches now – wanders into the bat-cave and picks up the mask the Phantom has left behind. DO I SMELL A SEQUEL??
Happily I do not. In our final flash-forward to the black-and-white present (I haven’t mentioned the other flash-forward sequences because they serve no purpose whatsoever) Old Raoul visits Christine’s grave and finds a rose with her old engagement ring tied to it. The Phantom lives! Cue end credits and a really bad song.
Schumacher’s Phantom is very faithful to the source material, down to having some of the production design by the same person who’d done the original production design for the show. This movie looks almost exactly like the stage production, down to a visual joke about a drunk guy driving the fake elephant during the Hannibal scene – a gag I swear to God I remember from seeing the show on stage in 19-fucking-89.
Lloyd Webber wrote some additional music and a new song. The chandelier doesn’t fall until the end of the story. The story takes place in 1870, not 1881, and the flashback sequences are set in 1919, not 1910.
But it is, overall, an extremely faithful production. Indeed, so faithful is this adaptation that nothing, except perhaps that one beautiful long take through the opera house at the movie’s start, makes a case for why The Phantom of the Opera needed a filmic adaptation at all, and certainly not a film adaptation nearly 20 years after the musical first premiered, and absolutely not this adaptation. The three primary actors are attractive blank slates; Butler brings the most intensity to his performance but is betrayed by his weak voice, where Wilson just doesn’t have much to do (and is saddled with a bafflingly unattractive hairstyle) and Rossum is sixteen years old, for fuck’s sake. She has a good voice but her role is to stand around and feel confused about the two boys who like her.
The three leads have gone on to have totally fine careers (though Wilson, a Broadway veteran, who, I may have mentioned, went on from this film to play FUCKING NIGHT OWL, is probably now thanking his lucky stars for Fargo). Rather sadly, The Phantom of the Opera remains Schumacher’s biggest hit of the 21st century.
Monsters: Screamy sexy murderopera fan the Phantom. He has pink-eye and a rash. He is not totally hot. He's a monster. A MONSTER.
Wait, no. The major problem with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera is that Raoul simply can't hold a candle to the scary murder-obsessed titular character, and that's either when the character's being played by a dude who can sing really well (he gets all the sexy songs in the show. Every one of them.) or he's played by a young, hot Gerard Butler. Either way: our sympathies and our panties are on the side of sexy murderopera. It doesn't matter what the unmasked Phantom looks like, whether it's Gerard Butler with pink-eye or the skin-melted, exposed-bone look of the original. HE'S JUST REALLY HOT.
Mullets: Patrick Wilson's hair, while not a mullet, is freaking epic. Just look at this. Look at it!
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: The ladies do not have great roles in The Phantom of the Opera. Carlotta is a screechy diva, Madam Giry is constitutionally dolorous, Meg Giry is, like, there, I guess, and Christine has no affect, no drive and no agency and can’t make up her mind between the (virginal!) hot screechy murderer and the wet-rag rich dude.
Ruining my Childhood by Inches: Look, I saw Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman perform Phantom on stage when I was nine, and it was awesome. But then I listened to the soundtrack (two cassettes!) approximately nineteen billion times and built up a pretty thick Phantom skin, I guess. This adaptation did nothing to destroy my residual good feelings about seeing the show the first time; nor did it add to them in any way. Essentially, The Phantom of the Opera seems to have moved into neutral space in my mental real estate. No childhoods have been ruined by this film, though I expect my mother, who loves the show, would find the film pretty disappointing. I don’t know. Why did they make this movie? Why did they make it in 2004? What was the point?
Doesn’t Anyone Think This Shit Through? The list of actors considered for the role of the Phantom apparently included John Travolta, Michael Jackson, Antonio Banderas and Hugh Jackman. Jackman did Van Helsing instead. Is Van Helsing worse than Kate & Leopold? I dunno. God, Kate & Leopold was terrible. Let's get back to making fun of Raoul's hair.
Comprehensive Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: Somewhere west of Dragonslayer. At least that had a freaking dragon.