Friday, January 25, 2013

The Miserable

I'm catching up on writing some reviews of movies I've watched over the last few weeks, and I had deliberately been putting off reviewing LES MISERABLES as long as possible. I'm really the wrong person to be reviewing this. Although I'm a musician and I sing in a chorus, I am really not a fan of most musicals. So right off the bat this is a tough sell for me. But an article in today's USA Today (I'm travelling and that's the paper the hotel gets) has made me feel better about writing honestly about it. I had already read the blog review by Matt Walsh referenced in the article and had assumed that to be a minority opinion, but it seems we are not in the minority. (I do not agree with all of his criticisms.) The Miserable, in this case, are the audience.

The novel that this musical is based on is 1800 pages long. At some point I read a what must have been a children's condensed version of it (although I did not know that at the time) and I remember the story vividly as being about one central relationship: Jean Valjean and Jauvert. The rest of the characters are all ancillary, at least in my memory of the version I read.

This brings us to the problem with this musical. Not the movie, but the structure of the musical upon which it is based. Much of the musical is about the soggy, sagging, stodgy, stale, sappy pre-pubescent romance between two of these ancillary characters. This fits fine into a TWILIGHT film but really bogs down this musical.

And then there is the matter of the music itself. "I Dreamed a Dream" has to be one of the most putrid songs ever written. Most of the rest of the music is paint-by-the-numbers composition. Perhaps the only halfway decent song is "Master of the House," again using ancillary characters.

Then we get to the film adaptation of this musical that I already didn't like. I figured the casting of Hugh Jackman might be good enough to make up for the casting of Russell Crowe. I was wrong, Wolverine was just as bad of an actor as Gladiator. Jackman's singing isn't that good either. Crowe's singing is abysmal. And so is his acting in this film. It's as though both of them forgot that when you are singing you still have to act.

The younger parts have gone to pretty boys, who don't really add much to the film in any way. My absolute favorite parts of the film were with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter; the only two who understood just how badly this movie needed comic relief. (The rest of the film is as serious as seven heart attacks.) Unfortunately they are so different from anything else, they don't belong in this movie at all, but whatever movie they do belong in, that's the one I wish I had seen.

Then there's the matter of how the film was shot. Director Tom Hopper decided to break tradition and shot the songs with the actors singing live instead of to playback. Contrary to what we are usually told, the reason we usually shoot to playback is not really technical. Musicals are difficult no matter how you shoot them.

The real reason is that singing is really hard. Professionals singing in musicals perform each song once a night. When you are shooting a film, you can's ask a singer for dozens of takes in a row and expect that they will give a full performance. That's why it's easier to record the music separately from the picture. I do applaud the effort of doing it live. It must have been extremely difficult.

And I do think that this method is why Anne Hathaway will win an Oscar for her performance in this film. Her soliloquy is shot in one long closeup and her singing is real.. and therefore, so is her acting. In fact even the duets between the minor characters are much more emotional because they were shot this way. It has an immediacy that playback could not possibly have.

However, it's clear to me as a music editor that the big production numbers, including the one that opened the film, were not shot this way. And the mix-and-match approach is very distracting, when some characters sound great, and others sound like Russell Crowe.

If you took the time to read this review, thank you. You are one of only a few.
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