Monday, January 14, 2013

Can You Hear the People Sing?

Confession - I like musicals.  Big, splashy, in-your-face musicals.  Lately, it seems that most musicals we get are of the kid variety - you know, Pixar and Disney; that sort of thing.  There's nothing at all wrong with that - there's some great stuff in that type of film.  But I occasionally like my singing to come from people, rather than from animated teacups and cartoon elephants.

Which brings us to the big-screen version of Les Miserables.  The original novel is by Victor Hugo (who also wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame - there ought to be a limit on how much talent one man gets) and it's a tale well worth telling.  Technically, the film is a musical (basically meaning that it's not entirely sung) rather than an opera, but the grand scheme and sweep of the tale deserves the operatic tag.  One song was added specifically for the film and while I certainly don't think "Suddenly" is awful, I have to admit that I don't think it adds all that much - mostly because Les Miserables needs no addition.  It's a lovely show as is.  The book of the original stage show is by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and Les Miserables has been thrilling audiences ever since its debut in the mid-1980s.  

A show such as this has a nigh-fanatically devoted following, so why film it?  What does film offer that the stage doesn't?  Valid questions - in a film, you can do take after take until you get it just right.  On stage - well, the show well and truly must go on, regardless of sore throats, emotional upheaval backstage, or rude audiences.  There's a certain immediacy to a stage show - yes, you have a script, but the show really is different from night to night.

All in a single take.  ONE!
I think Tom Hooper pulled it off.  Hooper is probably best known for 2010's The King's Speech and for the TV miniseries about John Adams.  With Les Miserables, he did something extraordinary.  He filmed it live.  Really.  It's usual for the cast to assemble in a studio, sing their parts, then lip-sync during filming.  Hooper said, "Nuts to that!" and had his cast sing live - take after take.  The results are breathtaking.  Anne Hathaway's Fantine will move you to tears (by the way, in an interesting bit of trivia, Hathaway's mother covered the role of Fantine in the touring production when Hathaway was a child) at the sheer unfairness of life and that's unlikely to be the only time you cry.  (Samantha Barks' Eponine is a sublime joy to watch, even though you have a sinking feeling this can't end well.  Trust your instincts.)  Hugh Jackman, a renowned song-and-dance man before he became Wolverine, does Valjean proud and I'm even willing to give Russell Crowe a pass, although his voice is noticeably weaker than that of the other main characters.

Les Miserables is a gorgeous show that makes you  itch for revolution - in three-part harmony.  The settings, even in the slums, are rich with detail (note the shivering Fantine as she tries to survive winter on the docks)  It depicts a world in which cruelty is everywhere and it's dog-eat-dog out there.  Watch out for yourself, for no one else will bother and if you're too stupid to understand that, well, you deserve to get fleeced.*  The haves living in comfort and luxury, oblivious to the misery of the have-nots.  It makes you angry.  Yet Les Miserables is also about grace.  Kindness extended to those who don't deserve it.  The law as an unforgiving snare versus the obligation to repay what can't be repaid by doing your best to live right.  Taking a chance because you made a promise, even though that promise makes your life much, much more difficult.  In many ways, it's not a happy movie, but it's one that makes you glad to be alive.  But no, the good guys don't always win here.  It's not called "The Happy Ones," after all.

*Side note:  I once overheard someone say:  "Thank God we don't get what we deserve."  Gruesomely true words.

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