When ""heart-throb"" Antonio Banderas first turns away from an empty bar and starts banging out Oh, What A Circus at the beginning of Evita, the urge to titter is nearly unbearable. For 30 seconds more, it's fairly ludicrous; after that, the noisy strength of the song - - and the gob-smackingly spectacular montage sequence that accompanies it - - defies you not to get carried away by the heel-clicking energy of it all. You won't hear another laugh in the next two hours.
When Evita, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's follow-up to Jesus Christ Superstar, first arrived as a (ahem) concept album in 1976 (the stage version came two years later), it caused a moderately sizeable stir. Here, after all, was an attempt at modern opera rather than your conventional musical - - the story told entirely through song. Alan Parker's dazzling new version abandons the (obviously) stagey look of a Broadway production in favour of a large-scale but naturalistic style, rejigging the order of events somewhat and adding a brand-new song. But it remains true to the original work in all the important ways - - including the fact that only a handful of lines of dialogue are spoken in the entire film, everything else being crooned. This is a brave move, and it's to Parker's credit that he pulls it off so well - never are you unsure what's going on, or who's doing what to whom.
Having the likes of Bugsy Malone, Fame, Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Commitments nestling in his portfolio, Parker probably knows more about musicals than any other big-name director working today. What's new for him here, however, is the sheer scale of this production, which, with its perfectly reproduced 1940s cityscapes and teeming crowd scenes, has the kind of epic scope David Lean would have raised a hoary thumb to.
What Parker is known for, of course, is getting great performances from young or inexperienced actors. Uncharitable souls will suggest that his most impressive trick in Evita is making Madonna look like a great actress. What's probably more true to say is that La Ciccione has finally found a role to suit her vast, occasionally directionless ego. Madonna's video and concert performances show that she can cope perfectly as long as her acting is done through song, not dialogue. The fact that Evita's unwieldy life parallels her own in so many ways probably helps too, but whatever the reason, she's superb here - - as indeed, are the rest of the principals, particularly Banderas as the omnipresent narrator figure Ché (no longer the revolutionary Mr Guevara of the stage version but a more light-on-baggage everyman type).
A masterful production then, and the best film of Evita anyone will make. Its faults are the faults of the original (or, indeed, of the faintly ridiculous genre of rock opera): some of the songs, particularly the more '70s David Essex-style numbers, are poor, and the cumulative effect of all that singing does get wearing before the end (it's like being shouted at the whole time). That said, an absorbing telling of a great story.