Les Miserables: Yup, we can hear the people sing

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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