Les Misérables, the musical, has finally made it to the big screen, after years as the most successful stage musical in history. Don’t go see it if you are expecting something similar to the stage musical, only on screen. Don’t go see it if you are expecting a typical Hollywood movie musical. This movie musical is different and unique. I am not going to try to write another review of this movie—there are plenty out there that one can search for on the Internet. I did quite a few reviews when I was young, many years ago, before the stage version of this musical was written, so I simply want to point out a few things.
Before I take a look at a few of the common issues most reviewers focus on, I should like to look at the different and unique aspects of the movie. I think that, if one takes these aspects into consideration, the movie can be a deeper, more meaningful experience, and this is a movie to experience.
As I considered the cast, I really wondered how the leads could possibly tackle the very difficult part they played. Before I went, I had heard Hugh Jackman on a talk show state that the vocals were recorded live. How could this be possible, I thought? This approach goes back to the earliest movie musicals. Why would they return to this method after the lip-sync method employed for decades. Usually, the sound track is recorded months earlier with the orchestra and during the shooting of the movie, the talking is recorded, however, the singing is done to the previous recording and the actor simply moves their lips. I always thought that they must feel a bit foolish doing this.
Well, this would be difficult for Les Mis., since the entire dialog is sung. The movie would have been one long lip-sync. There would be another problem with this. When an actor is doing a lip-sync, close-up shots might reveal any mis-syncing of the actors’ lips. Thus, there would be very few close-ups. So, I can imagine there might have been some serious discussions, the first of which might have been, should the score and dialog be rewritten, or is there another solution.
This problem is directly linked to who might be cast for the lead roles. There are some seasoned musical theater actors that could easily handle the score. The problem, they are trained to project their voice. Also, on stage, there are no close-ups. Nobody can see tears from 100, 50, or even 20 yards away. A movie is a far more intimate performance venue than the stage. Movie actors, on the other hand, work hard at delivering an intimate performance, including camera close-ups.
I’m sure the notion of close-up sung performances was extremely intriguing to director Tom Hooper. What had to be devised was some way to capture a truly intimate sung performance that could bring the audience right next to the performer. To look them straight in the eye and see everything.
The actors would have to sing live. The audio would be captured by small microphones hidden somewhere. This is not new. One only has to watch “Singing In the Rain” to understand some of the problems experienced by early talkie moviemakers and their attempts to capture sound with a microphone. This is also not new to modern film-making. A few movies have taken this technical approach. I can see many potential problems that would have to be solved by a clever audio technician.
How could the singing be captured without extra, superfluous sounds, yet retain some sounds that would be natural and necessary, such as rain when Éponine sings “On My Own?” For me, I consider this a very difficult hurdle I cannot begin to explain, other than I know there are very good uni-directional miniature microphones available now and computer software that can isolate sounds.
How could the orchestra be recorded when the singing is not done at the same time? Perhaps, the solution came from the fact that stage performers rehearse with a piano. What if that could be done for a movie performance. The actor sings to a piano accompaniment and the orchestra could be recorded later. In fact, this is how the music for movies is often recorded. The conductor watches the movie and conducts the orchestra to match the timing of the movie. I’m not sure exactly how it was done for LM, however. this is the only alternative I see.
An interesting possibility opens up with this approach. It becomes possible for the actor to be in charge of the timing of the performance. They can slow down, pause, speed up, etc. The actor becomes even more creative than ever possible before. However, to ensure that the timing was seamless would mean shooting a scene as a single take. Many takes could be done, however, only one complete one could be used. It would be next to impossible to splice several performances into one perfect one, particularly, with the ad-libbing of the timing. To be able to use more than one camera angle for a scene, several cameras would have to be used at the same time. Think about it, this is ingenious and very creative.
Now, we can consider who might be best suited for this approach? I think there is still a need to decide if the singing is most important, or the creative liberties available? Are there actors available who can also sing?
For me, there is no comparison when it comes to the music and the singing. Les Mis. is my favorite musical. I have all the recordings, including the original concept album in French. The best for me is the 10th Anniversary performance. For Jean Valjean, it will always be Colm Wilkinson, who did appear in this movie as the Bishop.
Thus I knew, walking into the theater, that the singing would never match up. I was, however, interested to see if the actors could even sing. Hugh Jackman, as Valjean, can sing, however, he did strain with the score in some sections. He did throw himself into the part, even losing and gaining weight during shooting.
The most interesting casting was for Fauntine, not the largest part, but, one of the most important. Anne Hathaway became struck with show biz when she, as a young girl, saw her mother perform the part of Fauntine in the the road show of Les Mis. Attempting to shake the squeaky clean image plaguing her career since her first movie over ten years ago, The Princess Diaries, Hathaway immersed herself at the part. She lost 25 pounds and practiced for weeks to be able to sing while crying. I think it is a feat to cry on demand, but, to do it singing, must be amazing. She also did very deep research to understand the life of Fauntine. The make or break song, is “I Dreamed A Dream” and this performance is a masterpiece, right down to the very close up shot showing the mucus in Hathaway’s nose. How she could still sing, I will never understand.
Russell Crowe as Javert, was a struggle for me. Yes, he can sing, to a degree, but, missed the opportunity to stir the audience in “Stars.” Still, he did have moments, such as the spittle from his mouth at one point in a scene with Jackman.
The other parts were pretty good to adequate. I have not heard a better Éponine than Lea Salonga, who did it on the 10th Anniversary performance and was Fauntine in the 25th Anniversary performance. That is about as much as I want to venture into the common reviewer aspects of the movie.
There are some serious problems with the approaches taken with this movie. Most notable to me is the music. The orchestra is an integral part of the performance of Les Mis. Re-scored for the movie, at times it seemed to take a rather standard movie soundtrack position instead of adding to the impact of the scene. In most movies the music is supposed to be unnoticeable. If it manages to stay out of the way, it has done it’s job. Not so with a musical and certainly not with LM. The orchestra needs to be right there. I don’t know if this is a failure because the orchestra was added later, the final mixing, or both.
I think that the liberties afforded by way the movie was done lead to some confusion as to how some scenes should be shot and edited. Perhaps things like the live singing overshadowed the directing of other aspects of the picture. Perhaps, they simply got a bit carried away with what could be done.
Still, Les Miséables, the movie, has impact and is impressive in it’s own way. It is gritingly real and dirty, like no other movie musical. The 4-hours stage version has been condensed to 2:37. I’m sure everyone involved in the making of this picture learned a lot and now have ideas to improve on the next production. Too bad they had to practice the innovative approaches on such a masterpiece as Victor Hugo’s timeless epic story set to music, Les Miséables. I hope that the points I have raised will help the viewer overlook some of the flaws and see this movie as not simply another movie musical, but, something new, different and unique.
Note: Last night I thought of a few more things to write here. This morning, I could not remember them. So, here it is, as is. Also, I am not adding any specific links. It is easy to find plenty to read with a simple search.