Friday, January 4, 2013

My Thoughts on the Film of Les Miserables

I saw Les Miserables on Christmas Night with my husband, Roger and I will be going back in February to see it again with my niece, Ami. (can't wait for the second viewing) I was pretty excited about seeing this movie considering that it was the first time in movie musical history that all of the singing was performed live instead of taped in a studio, sweetened, and lip synced by the actor on the day of shooting. I was also excited to see this movie because...well, Hugh Jackman. (need I say more?)

I have been a fan of the stage version of this musical since it first came out on cassette tape in 1985. I even bought the French Concept album. I saw the stage production on Broadway, and regardless of a stale cast, I still couldn't help but love the music and the story. In 2008 I was privileged to perform in the play when Tuacahn presented it as part of their season. It was a show I could have easily done for six more months. I never got tired of the music and our amazing cast.

After seeing clips and previews of the film, I dealt with the fact that the movie would be a different experience (especially from a vocal stand point) so I went into the film stripped of any previous expectations. And I have to say that overall, I was moved by this film. The messages of mercy, love, redemption, and faith were right at the forefront being supported by one of the most beautiful scores in musical theater. It didn't end up being my favorite movie musical, but even with it's imperfections, the story was presented in a raw and intimate way that I could never have experience through a stage production, or a concert version or just listening to the soundtrack alone. Film has a way of bringing everything under a microscope so we have to deal with the images and messages head on. I appreciated that aspect. It was like I was observing the story with fresh new eyes.

Since this is my vocal blog, I feel like I need to take some time to address this film from a vocal stand point. If you were to strip everything away and just look at the cast as singers, I would say there were only a hand full of people I heard sing in the film who had a technically balanced sound. The actors portraying Enjolras, the Foreman and Brevet are singers that I would put in this category. Young Cossette and Gavroche (remind me what a cockney child is doing in France? haha) both were child actors who sang quite well for their ages. That leaves pretty much all of the principle roles played by people that technically had vocal issues. If you look at it from that point of view, this movie really stunk! But, what one must keep in mind is that this is a Hollywood Film. And musicals have made a come back in Hollywood in the last couple decades and the bottom line is that we will be seeing more and more Hollywood actors, who are film actors first, singers second, play the lead roles. (good news for vocal coaches in Hollywood!)

So, now if you look at the film from the perspective of film actors first, singers second, my question would be, "Did the actors cast in this film, which is mostly sung, convey the emotion and message of the text they were singing, regardless of not being technically balanced singers?" To that I would answer, all of the film actors accomplished this with varying degrees. To interpret and convey a song to an audience is much like trying to interpret and convey the language of Shakespeare to an audience. Both can be barriers if one is not skilled in allowing the song or language to become secondary to what one is truly trying to say. The actor that seemed to struggle with this the most (in my humble opinion) was Russell Crowe. His non-singing performance: the glances, his stance or any spoken dialogue was intriguing, captivating and true to his Oscar winning form. He seemed steady in two person scenes like "The Confrontation" but his big solo numbers, "Stars" and most disappointing of all, "Soliloquy (Javert's Suicide)" fell flat. Even though Javert is a stoic character...I really felt confused during these solos, especially the latter. The song was a barrier for him and as an audience member I wasn't getting the subtext. I wanted to shout out,*"Enough with walking on the edge of that ledge, let me see what is going on inside of you man!"   *to be said in the tone of Dr. McCoy from Star Trek

I LOVE the concept of singing live in a film and hope that that carries on. As I always say, "The less auto-tune, the better". Tom Hooper and 'the powers that be' made a bold choice in doing this. The actors were very brave to undertake this. I am sure they understand their vocal issues better than anyone and it took a certain amount of humility to agree to this new concept. I know we see live singers in theater on a regular basis and don't give it a second thought, but something about it happening on film was fascinating to me. In particular the highlights of the film for me where the marriage of raw emotion and vocal performance came together seamlessly were, Ann Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" filmed in one take...Very satisfying. Hugh Jackman singing "What Have I Done?" in that gorgeous church setting...Amazing. And Eddie Redmayne's "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"...'Nuff said.

Everyone within my theater circles has their strong opinions about this film. And I don't blame them, this musical has a tendency to hold a special place in one's heart and stay there. I heard criticisms like, "the directorial techniques were very amateur", "too many close ups", "so and so can't sing", "I would have cast so and so", "I wish they would have made a different acting/singing choice in that moment", etc...Believe me I took part in most of these conversations and I have my opinions on what I would have done differently and who should have been cast instead. But to be fair, I think most of us in our criticism were naturally comparing it to how we experienced it when we saw it on stage and realistically, you can't put the two side by side and have the same result. The film has to stand on it's own apart from any other version because it is being presented in a different genre. Hollywood actors were cast because it is a Hollywood film. That particular director was chosen and he made certain choices with the material, and there you have it. The film stands on its' own and now will go down in history as it is. If you have problems with it...well, you have the option of not seeing it again. Fortunately, the stage version of this musical will be performing in theater's across the country for many year to come. Pioneer Theater is holding auditions this month and next year there will be a revival of it on Broadway. Go audition or get your tickets now! Yep, this musical is not going away any time soon...I just hope they don't add the song 'Suddenly' to the stage version... ;-)