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Les Miserables: Yup, we can hear the people sing

1 Jan

After way too much time in the Philadelphia airport just after Christmas (and why don’t airports contain movie theaters?), I finally managed to see Les Miserables a couple of nights ago. I’m going to use that as the primary excuse for the horrible title of this blog entry and hope you’ll stick with me anyway.

Certainly, Les Miserables was very good, clear and satisfying Oscar bait, and made an admirable and largely successful effort to resolve a number of weaknesses in the stage production. But it wasn’t perfect, and also arguably underscored just why it’s so hard to sell audiences on the idea of the musical as a major modern film genre.

But whatever weaknesses the film might possess they aren’t, as many reviewers would tell you, that is is long or bombastic or emotionally manipulative. It’s a movie musical, after all, and complaining about these things is a bit like fretting that a thriller contains murder or an action movie contains explosions. The genre is what it is (and neither bombast nor sentimentality are inherently bad; arguably these are the very reasons some of us go to the movies and the theatre). While there is certainly space for genre films that draw in those not normally interested in the genre in question (a space which I think Les Mis does successfully occupy, even if only through marketing buzz), this ability to broaden the audience should hardly be the main criteria by which we evaluate a film.

Les Mis the film works in that it not only makes the narrative of the original show clearer, but in that it minimizes some of the elements of the show that even I always found cloying. Baby Cosette’s “Castle on a Cloud” somehow managed to be less syrupy on film, and Gavroche’s “Little People” was substantially and thankfully minimized, although Daniel Huttlestone’s performance as the boy has a surprising nuance to it.

Similarly, the film resolves a number of tone issue, with “Master of the House” being funny but quite dark, and “Lovely Ladies” being clearly terrifying from the beginning. The visual language of both songs also helps to draw a clear line from the French Revolution of 1787 to the events of the film.

Other issues, including the death of the antagonist long before the narrative concludes and a love story that while structurally necessary, completely shifts the center of the story 60% of the way through the piece, remain fixed and likely unresolvable. They make more sense on film, somehow though. As if the detail of film can successfully carry these narrative transitions in the way stage can’t.

What I remain the most conflicted about is the way the singing was naturalized through live performance at the time of filming. It’s an immense technical and artistic achievement, and without it we should have been deprived both of Anne Hathaway’s utterly shattering performance as Fantine, and the adult and palpable inner-conflict that Hugh Jackman brings to the screen as Jean Valjean. But it also renders many exquisite songs less beautiful in a way I didn’t mind at all while watching the film, but felt some regret towards when listening to the original New York cast recording later.

However, what I perhaps most missed in the performances perhaps had little to do with vocal quality and more to do with what I assume to be directorial choices. I didn’t feel menaced by this Javert and rarely encountered the delight at his own power that always struck me as so essential to the performance of his character in the stage production. The vocal duel between Javert and Jean Valjean may be my favorite moment of Broadway music ever, and it was largely lost on film thanks to the distraction of a real, if brief, challenge with weapons, and the very real possibility that Russell Crowe’s voice (which does have a quality I love, but is not perhaps meant for musical theatre) was just not up to the task.

Les Miserables is a remarkable achievement, not just for what is on screen, but for the degree to which it respects the audience’s ability to accept and enjoy it. In no way does it replace or live up to the experience of live theater. But it is also not a pale imitation of the stage production. It’s its own thing, that enhances, informs, and calls out to the experience of seeing the stage show many of us have had.

I find myself perhaps most interested in it for how it will influence whatever the next major attempt at a big screen musical proves to be, and to what degree it will inspire further demand for and acceptance of the movie musical as acceptable and in demand fare for U.S. film audiences. I am also interested in how it may impact what we view as acceptable audience behavior and participation as singing along and discussing our reactions as the film played out was common in the theater I saw it in, and that, somewhat surprisingly, actually felt anything but inappropriate.

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11 Responses to “Les Miserables: Yup, we can hear the people sing”

  1. OVH January 1, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    I saw it today and my ability to watch it was somewhat curtailed by the fact that I am in a hyperemotional state with grieving and the holidays. Not my best move seeing this film as my first movie of 2013. As this is an emotionally resonant story and it *IS* emotionally manipulative and in my current mental state the plucking of the heartstrings was overly effective.

    I agree with everything you said about the film; however, your remarks about the stage version are lost on me as I never saw it which is in part while this film was important to me. I always wanted to and I felt less complete without it.

    My biggest issue with the film is Russell Crowe’s voice. Not that it’s horrible. I went in expecting it to be awful and it was anything but, but his vocal performance has very little in terms of emotional weight. He’s singing and singing well, but I only know what he’s feeling from the lyrics. Which I guess could be hidden in the stage performance, but it can’t be hidden in the midst of these live performances where everything is burdened with such weight.

    • RM January 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

      I first saw Les Miserables with the original New York cast and as such, got to see Terence Mann as Javert and there was so much power and menace in that I’m not sure anything could have lived up.

      If you do ever get a chance to see it on stage (they did revive it in NYC a couple of years ago and I took Patty to it), you should. It’s a different animal and satisfying in a different way.

      I can’t imagine, in the context of your year, how utterly grueling all the content related to phantom lovers and friends was for you. The film underscored this more clearly than many parts of the stage show (Valjean’s comfort of Fantine; Marius’s comfort of Eponine specifically), and yeah.

      • OVH January 1, 2013 at 7:48 pm #

        “To love someone else is to see the face of God.”

        I was bouncing around emotionally before that, but that line just gobsmacked me. I lost it.

        And with Javert, that’s what was missing “power and menace”. I just got the impression that he was a determined soldier doing his duty as he saw it. It’s written as if he’s the villain of the piece, although a villain that is more than a cutout, and Crowe doesn’t strike me as a threat. Jackman;s performance evokes fear, and you’re left saying, “He’s afraid of that guy?!?!? Why?” And it’s not because Crowe is a bad singer. It’s that he’s just singing.

        On the opposite end of the spectrum, Anne Hathaway is just amazing. Her performance all the way around makes you feel, and feel what you should be feeling when you should be feeling it.

  2. amandalovesmovies January 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm #

    While I enjoy Les Mis immensely, seeing it as a film did underlines some of its weaknesses, mainly that they first and second acts are so different, they feel like different stories. However I felt Cosette and Marius were much easier to stomach here.

    • RM January 1, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

      Word. I found Marius fairly sympathetic (although that was due more to his friends and himself) and Cosette remarkably inoffensive. For a film so many reviewers feel cranky about the manipulativeness of, I thought it was much less saccharine than the source (which I am also inordinately fond of, although yeah, I have never cared about the Marius/Cosette plot).

    • Elizabeth January 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm #

      Interesting. To me, the Cosette/Marius romance felt far more ridiculous on film than it ever did on stage. On stage the instantaneous adoration didn’t feel nearly as instantaneous.

  3. CT January 1, 2013 at 10:06 pm #

    1. As someone who is both incredibly fond of the musical theater genre and who rarely finds any emotional satisfaction in the love stories in said musicals, it was interesting to me that I was able to watch and enjoy Les Mis completely independent of the Cosette/Marius(/Eponine) storyline.

    2. For me, it was incredibly satisfying as an ensemble tragedy.

    3. For me, the small moments really struck me, especially, for some reason, the moment when the leader of the revolutionaries is backed against the window and ‘Red and Black’ comes back for a moment.

    4. The naturalization of the music was successful, for me–it allowed the movie to do different things with the music than the stage show does, and therefore allowed the movie to exist in its own right.

    5. The full theater I watched it in was dead silent except for the five or six times you could hear people crying audibly.

    • RM January 1, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

      2 and 3!

      I think for me the most shocking moment of the entire film was seeing the look on those boys’ faces right before the soldiers fired up through the floor.

  4. Alex January 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    I saw Les Mis a dozen years ago, with Colm Wilkinson as Valjean. So pretty much nothing ever could live up to that. I was remarkably unimpressed by both Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe… I felt like Jackman was struggling for so many of his songs (Bring Him Home was especially notable for this), and Crowe just wasn’t bringing any intensity to Javert. I was kind of like, this is a man who has spent SEVENTEEN YEARS chasing the same criminal that got away. That is a terrier-like tenacity that he didn’t sell AT ALL. Stars was such a disappointment…

    That said, Seyfried and Banks and Redmayne made three of the more annoying characters much more loveable for me, which was nice. I agree with Elizabeth that the instant love felt way more… instant, but I was okay with that.

    My other thought was that for a movie where a woman sells herself into prostitution and dies of syphilis in the first 30 minutes, it’s remarkably bloodless and PG-13.

    (Also, some of the lyrics made no sense with the visuals, which bothered me more than it maybe should have. “You won’t see me here for dust”… but… he’s in the water?)

  5. Mariah W Grimm January 4, 2013 at 1:58 pm #

    I’m not a les mis fan, but I’ve been thinking of seeing it because I have a weakness for bonham carter, baron cohen and redmayne. thoughts on their performances?

    • RM January 4, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

      Redmayne’s role is sort of thankless and always has been, but he does really well with it and more than I think any of us expected. Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are great.

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