Friday, January 4, 2013

Multi-Media, January 4, 2013

Do you hear the people sing? Loud and clear!
Powerful performances overcome some directorial issues
by Stuart Munro

I think it’s safe to say Les Misérables is one of the most anticipated movie musicals in a long time. Musical theatre lovers my age grew up with this show, and I know each of my four recordings inside and out. I find it fascinating tracking the small changes that have been implemented over the years (most of them not to my liking, save the new orchestrations for the 25th anniversary production), and I wondered if the film would follow a particular incarnation of the show or not. More importantly, I wondered how a sung through musical as grand in scale as Les Miz would translate to the big screen, and whether or not the bold experiment of using live singing throughout would pay off. 

I’m happy to say the effort, while not quite perfect, succeeds wonderfully where it counts most: the emotion is honest and powerful, and the performances are stunning across the board. 

These scenes often required new bits of musical dialogue, and it is a credit to the writers that these new sections always worked.

The screenplay by original authors Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, as well as English screenwriter and playwright William Nicholson, thankfully, maintains most of the sung material, including a lot of the recitative; what is removed is done so because the information can more easily be shown on screen than on stage. The decisions for what to cut and what to keep are usually smart and well considered. A few songs have been moved around, sometimes working well (“I dreamed a dream,” “Stars”), and sometimes not (“On my own”). Moreover, the screenwriters had the opportunity to include elements from the novel which didn’t make it into the stage adaptation: most noticeably the sojourn at the convent after Valjean rescues Cosette, but also the inclusion of Marius’s grandfather, the pulling of Fantine’s teeth, and the funeral of General Lamarque as the catalyst for the rebellion. These scenes often required new bits of musical dialogue, and it is a credit to the writers that these new sections always worked. Additionally, a new song, “Suddenly,” has been written for Valjean for the moment after he rescues Cosette and is easily one of the most successful additions seen in a movie musical since EVITA’s “You must love me.”

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean leads the large cast, and for me he was the weakest link. His emotion and intention were always spot on, and the arc of his personal salvation is clearly and carefully laid out. Vocally, however, the performance was a mess. Jackman’s sound was always strained and tight, and his performance of “Bring him home” was painful. Having seen him live, and knowing the sound he is capable of making, I was both confused and disappointed. Russell Crowe as Javert has received a lot of flack for his performance (especially the quality of his singing), but I have to say I was impressed on both accounts. Crowe’s Javert is a model of professional restraint and detachment, and it is only when Valjean releases him saying, “There’s nothing that I blame you for. You’ve done your duty – nothing more,” that we see that veneer start to crack. His voice is by no means beautiful, but compared to Jackman’s it was often a relief.

As is often the case with Les Miz, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and Eponine (Samantha Barks) steal the show. As Fantine, Ms. Hathaway gives a heart-rending performance, and her sad decline is beautifully crafted. “I dreamed a dream” is one continuous take in close-up, and she keeps your attention for its entire duration. Samantha Barks, as one of the few legitimate music theatre actors to make it into the film (she had played the part previously in the 25th Anniversary concert) brings a remarkable voice and a wonderful interpretation of the lovesick waif to the film, yet she never wallows in self-pity. A pleasant surprise was Eddie Redmayne’s Marius. Redmayne sings much better than I might’ve expected from someone not known for it. The simplicity of his love-struck first meeting with Cosette, played rather well by Amanda Seyfried, is honest and moving, and his rendition of “Empty chairs at empty tables” is shattering.

some of the epic nature of the score is lost, and numbers like “One day more” and “Do you hear the people sing?” fall a little flat

Helming this massive undertaking is director Tom Hooper, best known for “The King’s Speech.” Aside from assembling a stunning cast, Hooper has overseen an impressive design; his Paris is dirty and dingy, and the desperation of the characters singing “Look down . . .” or “At the end of the day . . .” easily flies off the screen to reach the audience. Hooper uses a lot of close-ups (one could argue too many close-ups) which, more often than not, succeed in making this larger than life musical a more personal affair – the trade off is that some of the epic nature of the score is lost, and numbers like “One day more” and “Do you hear the people sing?” fall a little flat. The decision in this film to use live singing in every take (instead of lip-synching to a prerecorded track) has paid off brilliantly. There is a clear connection to the text here that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a movie musical before. With a little luck, this practice will become the new standard.

Where the film suffers most is in its pacing, and at nearly three hours, that’s a genuine concern. Les Miz flies from thought to thought, plot point to plot point at a sometimes breakneck speed. The fast pacing and resulting potential confusion is generally mitigated by the overarching, sweeping continuous score. In the film, enough of that score has been removed to interrupt that flow, and what we’re left with is a series of near perfect scenes which are tied together in a less than perfect fashion. When it works, it works brilliantly (the transition from the prologue to “At the end of the day” is astounding! It would never have occurred to me to use those opening downward chords as the expression of Valjean’s spiritual liberation instead of just a scene transition), but too often I found myself thinking “How on earth did we get here so suddenly? All right then . . .” This is especially true in the scenes involving the students (prior to and during their rebellion), which have been especially shortened, thereby robbing them of their impact, and I found myself wishing for an intermission and a chance to collect my thoughts. (Why did we stop putting these in movie musicals? The great classics typically have them.)

For me, the litmus test of whether or not a production of Les Misérables has worked or not is one simple question: do I lose control and weep at Fantine’s entrance in the final scene? The answer here is an unabashed “Yes!” The final moments of Les Miz are filled with emotion, but that emotion will only come across if we’ve actually cared about what’s been happening up to that point. Les Misérables is not a perfect film – it may not even be a great film – but it is an emotional one, and we have cared about these characters in an intense way. The film is filled with extraordinary performances and some haphazard direction. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s spot on.

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