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“An Iconic Evita” : American Cinematographer

Madonna - American Cinematographer / January 1997

An Iconic Evita

Director Alan Parker and cinematographer Darius Khondji, AFC add sophisticated shading an epic screen adaptation of the popular opera.

Given the jaded, seen-it-all attitude of modern film audiences, the task of bringing another musical to the big screen might seem foolhardy at best. In a world where most viewers consider the genre to be the cinematic equivalent of the Model T, a filmmaker bent on repairing the old jalopy for one more run must be a master mechanic indeed.

Director Alan Parker, however, has had better fortune than most in the realm of movie musicals. He took his first stab at the form in 1976 with Bugsy Malone, a fizzy spoof of 1930s’ gangster flicks that featured an all-kiddie cast (including a youthful Jodie Foster). Four years later, Parker hit paydirt with Fame, a rousing crowd-pleaser that tracked eight talented teen performers through the halls of New York’s High School of Performing Arts. In addition to fueling nationwide fantasies of curtain-calls in the footlights, the film earned Academy Awards for Best Song (“Fame”) and Best Original Score, as well as five other nominations, and also spawned a television series. Spurred on by that success, Parker took a darker turn with 1982’s Pink Floyd: The Wall, a surreal, angst-filled adaptation of the blockbuster rock opera. With its disturbing mix of Fascistic imagery and acid-trip animation, The Wall remains a cult favorite, particularly with its target audience of anti-Establishment teens. Parker’s most recent success with musical material was 1991’s sleeper hit The Commitments, a shaggy-dog story about a spunky Dublin band’s determined attempts to popularize classic soul music in their hometown.

With this estimable track record behind him (as well as his expert handling of gripping dramatic fare such as Midnight Express, Birdy, Angel Heart and Mississippi Burning), Parker was the logical choice to helm Disney’s epic screen version of Evita, which endured 20 years in the purgatory known as “development” before beginning production, at long last, in February of 1996.

Ironically enough, the project’s wrap date in May of ’96 marked the closure of a full circle. After hearing Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original concept album of the opera in 1976, Parker himself had approached the duo in the hopes of adapting the story for the big screen. That first overture fizzled, but the possibility of a film version was revived when producer Robert Stigwood capital-ized on the chart-topping album by collaborating with Lloyd Webber and Rice to create a stage version that took London by storm. After opening at the Prince Edward Theatre on June 21, 1978, Evita became a musical megahit; by the time it closed, it had been performed 2,900 times in the West End, and the subsequent Broadway adaptation earned seven Tony Awards at the end of its first season in New York.

In 1979, after the play’s smash debut in London, Parker was approached by Stigwood, who asked if he was still interested in the idea of directing a movie based on the musical. Says Parker, “I had just finished working on Fame, so I said no. Normally you don’t regret turning down films, but I regretted that one. I watched over the years as other people got involved, but it still never got made.” The director finally got his chance in the summer of 1994, when producer Andrew Vanja came back to him bearing the old chestnut. Bowing to Fate, Parker agreed to write and direct the project, which became a three-way effort involving Cinergi, the Robert Stigwood Organisation and Parker’s own company, Dirty Hands.