I have a hit-or-miss relationship with musicals. The movie musicals I love – Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, West Side Story – are older, made during Hollywood’s golden studio era, made when our society needed the escapist properties of Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly. There are many musicals in the last couple decades that have done much for me. Chicago grated on my nerves. Dreamgirls made me yawn. And movies like Burlesque and Mama Mia! gave me insane gastrointestinal problems. The only musicals I can honestly say I liked in recent memory are Sweeney Todd and Moulin Rouge, and that was more for the directorial flair than anything else.
Broadway has had even less of a hold on me. I saw my first Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera back when I was 12, on a school field trip. It starred Michael Crawford as the Phantom and Sarah Brightman as Christine. I loved the experience, the emotion, the mystery, and most importantly, the songs; it is still my favorite stage musical. Although, I imagine if I was able to score tickets to The Book of Mormon, I would no doubt find a replacement (I have listened to the soundtrack a score of times, and adore it more than most albums from my favorite musicians).
All this to say that I was never struck by the Les Miserables fever that took hold in the early 90s when I remember the play breaking big nationwide. One of my good friends used to listen constantly to the London Cast recording on CD and singing the songs nonstop for a few weeks. I always thought it was sort of nutty and never took the time to explore the musical more. And the tunes I heard didn’t do much for me.
So, when I heard that Tom Hooper was planning on doing a full scale adaptation of the Broadway musical on the big screen, it didn’t mean much to me. The only thing that piqued my interest was his intention to have the actors sing live on set and use those performances as the soundtrack as opposed to traditional methods of recording the songs before the start of production. I liked the idea of the rawness of live performances, even if it meant that the actor wasn’t a skilled vocalist. Perhaps it would bring out a stronger emotion of which lip syncing just isn’t capable.
This turned out to be both true and false. Les Miserables is definitely a hit-and-miss movie. It has a couple strong performances, a few strong sequences, several awful performances, and a director who doesn’t know how to stay out of his own way. Here are some things to think about:
Talking Point #1: Who is this movie being made for?
Since I’m not the world’s biggest musical fan, nor a hater by any stretch, I thought I was the ideal audience for a movie like this. If it was good, I’d be won over; if not…I’d write a scathing review. Well, as I sat through the first half of the film, considering taking a bathroom break, I realized that this movie was being made for Les Miz fans, and Les Miz fans only. This was confirmed after the film, when I was driving home with my friend, Steph, who is an unabashed fan of the musical, and she kept explaining things I was calling into question by bringing up her past experience with seeing it on stage and reading Victor Hugo’s novel. This doesn’t mean that she loved the movie either – she didn’t – but it quickly made it clear to me that if you’re not in the Les Miz club before seeing this film, you probably won’t be lining up to join after seeing it.
Talking Point #2: Jury is out on live singing in movies
Let me get it out of the way since pretty much every critic has already said it, the Golden Globes are getting ready to award it, and an Oscar nomination is already predestined: Anne Hathaway is fantastic. She is by far the best performer in the film, and she also has the pleasure of singing the film’s best song, “I Dreamed a Dream.” She plays Fantine, a down-on-her-luck single mother sending back every franc she can earn to the scoundrel innkeepers taking care of her daughter, Cosette. Fantine’s story is tragic, and as she falls from grace, both myself and the film were fully engaged. Hathaway’s commitment to the character, and the way the anguish in her face comes across on the screen, is astounding. Unfortunately, the film never recovers from this. Once her character is gone from the story, it really sputters along.
But Hugh Jackman and especially Russell Crowe are not very good. Jackman’s voice is strong enough – although it warbles like a record on a wobbly player – but he has this nagging habit of breaking every melody and whispering, or talking the rest of the lyric. I get the need to make it a performance, to make it seem more “realistic”(as if you can use that word in context of a movie musical), but every time he does this, it took me out of the story, and kept me from appreciating the songbook, which is sort of the purpose of musicals, right? Crowe, though, is wretched. Half the time he is out of tune, it seems, and his voice does not match anyone’s. When he’d show up on screen, I had to hold back a groan, and felt like a parent at a school play, just hoping their kid won’t screw up, and looking around to see other’s reactions as they do.
The rest of the cast is competent, although Eddie Redmayne sort of sounds like Kermit the Frog when he sings. I rather enjoyed the sequences involving the French Revolution guys. They are spirited, feisty, and most importantly, sound good.
Talking Point #3: Making connections
The basic story of Les Miserables is a classic. Jean Valjean (Jackman) is released from prison on parole after serving 19 years for stealing a piece of bread to feed his starving niece, and he winds up finding a new identity and life as a generous, philanthropist factory owner. His world collapses when he runs into Javert (Crowe), the legalistic military officer who doesn’t believe a man can change his stripes. Eventually, Valjean manages to rescue the prostitute Fantine (Hathaway) from the clutches of Javert, and before she dies he promises to take care of her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). This decision puts him at risk of capture by Javert, but also provides him with the family and love that he had thought he’d lost. Eventually, Cosette falls in love with a revolutionary named Marius (Redmayne) and Valjean’s path crosses with the fight of the people against the government that has persecuted them all.
This is a powerful story, and Valjean is an amazing character. He is the symbol of the common man, struggling to get out from under the persecution of unfair powers of government and society; but it is his triumph, and the power of love that prevail. Seriously, this doesn’t seem like a hard story to screw up. It’s got great irony, colorful characters, terrific twists, and a dominant theme. Yet, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) does mess it up. Royally.
First, despite Jackman’s best efforts, Hooper overuses his extreme close-ups, wide angle lenses, and sweeping crane shots to the point where we are more focused on the technique than the character. Sidney Lumet said that style should service story, and called anyone who did otherwise a “decorator.” In his book, Making Movies, he said it’s not hard to recognize who the decorators are. Tom Hooper is, indeed, a decorator. The mise-en-scene and cinematography are beautiful, but they seem to be disconnected from the story being told at times. Every character is so closely framed when they sing that it’s hard to place them in time and space. If there is such a thing as overacting, there is such a thing as overdirecting, and Hooper does that here. The result is a loss of connection with those terrific characters and remarkable material. Is this evidence that an Oscar goes to a director’s head?
So, Les Miserables is a disappointing film. This coming from a guy who appreciates a great musical, but needs more than just a couple good songs and the pull of a few heartstrings before he starts singing along.