By now, everybody knows that Madonna is Evita -- "You must love me," she commands us in the Top 10 single written especially for the movie by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. And, really, not since Barbra Streisand and "Funny Girl" have a musical and its star been so perfectly matched.
Rice and Lloyd Webber's "Evita," which debuted as a rock opera album in 1976, is tricked out with ridiculously obvious political and media commentary ("Evita" makes the bold statement that politics is a form of theater). But "Evita," about the late Argentinian first lady and pseudo-religious icon Eva Peron, is mainly the story of one girl's rise to celebrity and power on the strength of an unshakable faith in herself and a carefully cultivated "touch of star quality." The musical depicts, predictably, Eva as a Lady Macbeth who helped "indecisive" husband Juan Peron seize power and become a fascist dictator. Throughout "Evita," she's cursed as a "bitch" and "slut" by her and Peron's enemies in the military, ridiculed as a talentless, social-climbing actress by the aristocracy and simultaneously reviled and admired as a brilliant manipulator of popular sentiment by the musical's cynical leftist-guerrilla narrator, "Che.
It is so like Madonna -- and this is why we would love her, even if she didn't order us to -- to stake her faltering movie career on a project about a woman who, basically, was the Madonna of her time.
Madonna sings on nearly every song on the two-hour, two CD soundtrack, and she's very good. She worked hard to beef up her voice and class-up her diction for the role; on "Rainbow High," she hits a lovely, bell-like soprano note on the chorus, while on her big numbers, "A New Argentina" and "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," she belts with confidence and power. As for her co-stars, Infiniti pitchman Jonathan Pryce comes off sounding wishy-washy and barely there as Juan Peron, but I guess he's supposed to. Antonio Banderas, who plays Che, sings the Spanish flavored numbers with a lusty Ricky Ricardo bonhomie and all the rest of Rice and Lloyd Webber's bad '70s rock-opera crap in a strained, Billy Joel-ish upper-register yelp.
OK, I admit it, I have a little trouble taking "Evita" seriously; I can't forget -- nor do I want to -- "SCTV's" "Evita" parody "Indira," with Andrea Martin frugging in a sari as Indira Gandhi. Rice and Lloyd Webber's bloated, self-important aural cubic zirconia deserves to be lampooned as often as possible.
And while "Evita," the soundtrack, is a triumph for Madonna (the movie opens in the U.S. on Christmas), you can't help noticing that everything Rice and Lloyd Webber have to say here about ambition, sex, money, fascism and the cult of celebrity was already said with more wit and cleverness by Madonna herself in "Material Girl." And it only took her four minutes.