“Carmen” is MTV’s first “Hip Hopera,” and while that phrase may be way too cute for its own good, this reworking of Bizet’s opera into a contemporary, hip-hop musical works quite well, and represents one of the more original recent efforts to create a new form from an old one. Directed by Robert Townsend (“The Five Heartbeats”) and cast with a combination of hip hop stars like “Destiny’s Child” Beyonce Knowles and Mos Def, and still-rising actors like Mekhi Phifer (“Clockers”), “Carmen” provides a clever blending of musicvideo and narrative story-telling, weaving hip hop dialogue and songs into a coherent, if not ultimately powerful, narrative. It is indeed “Music Television,” something that the cabler hasn’t been producing for a while, and while it isn’t going to encourage youth to subscribe to the Metropolitan Opera and won’t turn Bizet aficionados into rap fans, it does bridge a gap that had seemed impassable.
Film director Baz Luhrman did something similar with his “William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,” which used the fast-paced, quick-cut style of music videos to tell a classic story to a young generation. Townsend does the same, but goes even further in incorporating the language of musicvideos into his tale. When the characters break into song here, which feels surprisingly natural, director of photography Geary McLeod and editor Jonathan Shaw take up the challenge of turning these scenes into self-contained sequences, filled with fanciful non-sequitur images and plenty of sex appeal, all while continuing to advance the storyline. Townsend very successfully keeps the flow of the narrative going even while the piece becomes an accumulation of musicvideos, linked with more traditional spoken scenes. (It was smart not to try to turn this into a piece that’s all sung, but it does keep it from being an opera in the most technical sense.)
Composer Kip Collins, and, especially, lyricist Sekani Williams, deserve a lot of credit just for managing not to make all this seem silly. Not all of the songs stand out as memorable tunes, but there are indeed a couple here that could easily be around for a bit. And while some of the lyrics can be overripe in their contrivance, that’s because rhythm and tone here take priority over subtlety. There’s a particularly fine sequence here, a duet between Knowles and Wyclef Jean, who in a cameo role portrays the fortune teller who delivers the ill-fated Carmen news of her distressing fate. It’s where everything “Carmen” is trying to do comes together, using the ethereal sound of the song to communicate the dramatic event and employing the visual style of musicvids to achieve the sense of an inescapable future.
Knowles makes a fine acting debut, and once again makes it clear that she’s got a surplus of star power. Other rappers, from Mos Def as the story’s villainous corrupt cop, to young Lil’ Bow Wow, all make solid impressions, clearly at home in capturing character through their singing delivery, a quality that makes hip hop a natural for this kind of dramatic experiment. Phifer plays Derrick Hill, the cop unlucky enough to fall for the super-seductive Carmen who finds himself in jail as a result, and the actor manages to keep up well with the professional musicians during the musical numbers.
While “Carmen” makes a case for incorporating contemporary sounds into a classic tale, it doesn’t quite deliver fully the potential emotional punch of the story. Executive producer Michael Elliot crafted this adaptation, which transplants the story from Spain to Philadelphia, turns the lead character from a gypsy to an aspiring actress, and takes the climax from a bullfight to a rap concert. It changes details of the story along the way, but the outline remains recognizable, as do some of Bizet’s phrasings thanks to Stephen James Taylor’s sharp underscoring. What doesn’t come through, though, is the fundamental sense of an overwhelming sexual obsession and what that can do to a good person. Instead, the piece gets a bit sidetracked with its focus on bad cops — it’s not really Carmen who seals Hill’s fate here, which is what it’s supposed to be. But that’s a forgivable weakness for a telepic as successfully original as this one.