Blu-ray Review: LOVE NEVER DIES, But It Sure Smells Funny
Phantom of the Opera did a number of things: It solidified Andrew Lloyd Webber's success that he had seen following the likes of Cats, after having made a break from his original lyricist Tim Rice. With Rice, the two had collaborated on two pieces that remain very dear to my heart. I have an unnatural affinity for Jesus Christ Superstar, and it remains a decades long obsession with this near-perfect Rock Musical score, particularly when performed by competent musicians and singers up to the task. While recent productions have softened the impact of the work, the somewhat cheesy, yet entirely enthralling Norman Jewson film from 1973 provided in Neeley and Anderson (Jesus and Judas respectively) an astonishing vocal range and power of performance.
Similarly, their next work, Evita, took a fairly complex and interesting tale and gave it some powerful and memorable musical themes. While it was difficult for many to see past the Material Girl's star turn, the film version by Alan Parker is, I'd argue, one of the finest musicals filmed. Its lush production values, excellent recordings of the songs and the inclusion of stalwart performer Jonathan Pryce elevated it above a mere vanity project for dear Madge.
Both JCS and Evita began their lives as records, for even after some success such avant garde productions needed some buzz around them before they moved from lyrics/score to staged production. The success of these original recordings in turn allowed for the plays to be staged to varying degrees of success, but it also meant that they worked in both musical and lyrical terms as complete works, regardless of what was prancing about on stage. The visuals, in short, were bonus material for what at their core are fine concept albums.
By the time of Phantom, such delicacies had been abandoned, but Lloyd Webber's ability to craft memorable tunes hadn't quite completely abandoned him. With a turgid, melodramatic story that spoke to both current and future generations of mid-Western housewives, Webber proved again to have an affinity for crafting poly-rhythmic earworms. The main theme, with its epic B-flat chromatic run, proved near anthemic, recognizable to those who never have stepped foot in a live theatre.
Of additional note is that the theme seemed to lift a part of its charm from Pink Floyd's track "Echoes" - a fact that caused Roger Waters to pray for a miracle in song, where he dreams of "piano lid coming down", breaking Lloyd Webber's "fucking fingers".
Bitter prog bassists aside, it was undeniable that the Phantom production was an enormous global financial success, with millions attending productions in dozens of languages. The production paved the way for the modern mega-musical, where stage craft competed directly with the inflated budgets of film. The recent debacle about bringing Spider-Man to the Broadway stage has direct ties to the smashing of a chandelier onto the stage, swooping just over the heads of an (easily) astonished crowd.
For better or worse, Phantom's spot in the history of musical theatre is secured, and even the most dismissive of the play (and I count myself among those that abhor it) admit that it's a decent run of a few tunes, one often overlooked musical gem ("Masquerade" is the closest echo to ALW's previous gifts), and enough romance and drippy caterwauling to sufficiently retell a silly story about doomed love and the charisma of the fallen artist.
It's not spoiling much to say that the musical, like the source it draws from, has a pretty definitive ending. Forgetting passages that might be sung in The Book Of Mormon about a returning Messiah, both JCS and Evita also were pretty definitively contained. However, there did remain a few loopholes when our central characters weren't systematically offed in the end, which in turn led to a 20-year quest to bring the sequel that nobody really asked for to screen.
The wiki page does much more justice to this sordid tale than I'm willing to provide, but there are a few things that are particularly amusing. For one, it was reported that Lloyd Webber's cat climbed into the composer's digital piano and accidentally deleted the entire score. Given ALW's connection to T.S. Elliot, if this wasn't to be seen as a brooding omen, well, I'm not sure how much clearer it might have been to avoid this project save for Waters' miracle coming true.
Once things did get in shape, the show opened in London and then quickly closed before having a chance to migrate to Toronto and then Broadway, where, of course, all musicals inevitably try to land. Ripping the structure and setting apart, a newly created show was to be staged in Australia, with an eager cast and fine production staff putting on the so-called "long awaited" sequel to Phantom, titled Love Never Dies.
What we have with this Blu-Ray is a filmed production of the cast performing on stage the newest iteration of the show. The same High-Definition footage was "broadcast" in a number of movie theatres around the world, much the same was as the Metropolitan Opera has done to great success. The hope, if the stories are to be believed, is that this disc will lead fans of the original show to clamor for a local production.
While it does look like a Broadway show may in fact be in the cards, what has also resulted is a vocal backlash to the very idea of the show. Sites like LoveShouldDie.com and their "LSD team" are filled with fans of the original Phantom who somehow see the very existence of the sequel as a threat to their enjoyment of the other show. While I'm pretty used to seeing angry nerd-rage regarding sequels or rehashes of other cherished properties (hello, practically every movie from the last decade), this particular subset of the Interwebs was new for me. The glee with which they document the financial and critical failure of this production (caveats notwithstanding) spoke to a disconnect with even
All this ridiculous backstory was pushed to the side as far as possible when I sat down to watch and listen to this new take on the story.
I feared for the worse. And those fears didn't come close to preparing me for how absolutely repugnant this work of musical theatre is at its core.
Forget irritations with Aliens remakes, or whether Spidey is in need of another go at webslinging. By far the most useless, egregious sequel I'm likely to see this year comes in the form of a bloated, gormless charade of tuneless pomposity.
What's most frustrating about the piece is that it's clear a crapload of money and effort has gone into the production. There's nothing amateur about any of the key production elements of the stage play - the singing, the costumes, lighting, all top notch, world-class examples of modern theatrical presentation. Heck, even the orchestra does its own nimble job at providing a certain lushness to the proceedings.
It's the songs and the story - book, lyric and score - that are just so truly, head-banging-against-wall bad. So bad that even if you don't care about the piece (and, really, why should you) the very act of sitting through them makes you feel slightly murderous.
There are touches of the original production that make it even more annoying, wisps of themes and motifs that are quickly subsumed into the morass of dreary dirges and preposterous love triangles. Seldom has such a clunky tale been brought to the stage, and certainly never with such willful abandonment of any sense of tune.
Situated as a sequel to something with at least a few memorable tunes, this decades-in-the-making piece has tunes of such vapidity that you forget them almost before hearing them. Lyrics telegraph their rhymes in ways that would make the writers at Hallmark blush. When they finally kill off one of the leads, we're left without any pretense that this is anything more than a convenient extraction of some sort of feeling from the audience (perhaps calling for a Doctor wouldn't hurt).
The only real audience for this production is, I think, someone curious just how bad something can go wrong despite all the resources in the world to bring it 'round. Even the most guilded of turds gives off its odour, and fundamentally this show is a fetid piece of excrement. Yet the disc is at times quite beautiful - a peacock dress here, a fabulous set piece there. They situate the story in Coney Island instead of the Paris Opera House (temporal continuity be damned), and even have the nerve to bring a precocious Angel-voiced, cherub-faced boy into the mix to provide some kind of strange drama for those young girls of the original audience now grown with their own Maternal pangs to draw upon.
Only a sequel to Titanic would be more coarse and vile, while perhaps Schindler's List II: The Listening might draw a close second. Millions upon millions of dollars spent on crafting a work that entirely depends on unfounded nostalgia by fans of a particular musical, so cruddy that it in many ways must at least in part defecate on the memory of the original work. Hundreds of craftspeople and artists crafting something that from stills might be confused as a wonderful theatrical presentation, but at its heart is a cynical, manipulative ploy.
There's much to learn about this work for fans of given works - when the rights lapse, or the conditions arise, expect over the next few decades to see remake after remake, more sordid attempts to recapture past glories when seemingly original tales refuse to take hold in appropriate numbers. Gratefully, the audiences still seem savvy enough to see through the bile, finding success with other types of productions, but the desire to hoodwink an audience by trading exclusively on nostalgia is certainly a temptation that will never die.
As expected, the Blu-Ray presentation is more than adequate to convey the lusciousness of the production and costume design. Like the play, from a technical standpoint there's little to fault. The sounds of the score sound rich through both the stereo and multichannel mix, and the colour palates even during some of the more strobing moments remain consistent and generally free from video noise.
Almost as irritating as the score, however, is the direction. Normally not something to comment in a technical description, the editing style is so jarring, so off-putting, that it's akin to Michael Bay's staff being lent for the occasion. Naturally a stage play like this treads on scope, so the occasional held wideshot isn't such an abomination from a creative standpoint. Instead, we're treated to a kind of orgy of rapid-cut closeups that manically flit the viewer from cast member to cast member. When the camera settles down and actually captures from a moderate distance what's transpiring on stage, then the provocative and effective designs are allowed to be appreciated.
The only bonus is a fluffy, 15 minute or so "documentary" where they interview the Australian cast and Sir Andrew, each more enthusiastic than the last about the impending, seemingly inevitable success of the show. Such bonus tidbits as the director being able to time the entrances of the cast to match the written score give a sense of the level of introspection on hand here. Nothing about the production, its history and challenges, excerpts from abandoned scores, discussions about specific elements that are continuing to evolve, or any other parts that might be construed as interesting are to be found, alas.
Once again, the short doc is little more than the type of fluff Press Kit found on a myriad of other discs. A shame, for with a bit of actual depth and introspection, I could recommend the disc for the included supplements alone.
Awful, just awful.
If you're buying a disc based on the actual quality of the content itself, well, then Love Never Dies will not be high our your list. For those that wish to stomach the insanity, Universal has at least crafted a technically proficient disc that adequately captures note perfectly each and every misstep that the musical provides. While little more than an advertisement for the production, the short supplement is better than nothing, and does have a few tidbits that may be of interest.
More troubling, Love Never Dies may serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine, a vision of just when sequels, prequels (and perhaps even preboots) go over a bridge too far. At best this work will be quickly forgotten and slip away to the wherever American Graffiti II and the second Mannequin film hang out and do plenty of recreational drugs. More worrying, if they can make a sequel to Phantom of the Opera just because they can, then Love Never Dies might be a harbinger, a siren call for sequels to even the most preposterous of successes.
Why not finally get that long awaited sequel to The Conversation? How about another take on Hoosiers, this time involving some hypothetical sex scandal? What is Popeye Doyle up to these days with all that political correctness stuff they've been talking about for 30 years? Why does every awful sequel that comes to mind include Gene Hackman? The mind reels.
Frankly, Love Never Dies may prove to be more horrific to readers of this site than any arterial-spray laden gore fest, but you may not be prepared for just how horrific it really is. The zombie title is fitting, perhaps, as in the end no matter what warnings I may give, how strenuously I cry out into the dark, the damn thing will, I fear, continue to haunt for years and years to come.
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