Sunday, December 30, 2012

Can't Quite Hear the People Sing



My mind's been going at about a million miles per hour about what I thought of this movie. Hopefully this comes out as a somewhat structured, coherent piece of writing.

I heard about this movie on my mission. I know, I wasn't supposed to think about this kind of stuff, but good grief I was excited. I've been in really heavy anticipation for a long time.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say one thing. Les Miserables is bulletproof. It's possibly the best piece of  literature ever written and Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's musical adaptaion is perhaps the greatest musical of all time. It's definitely one of my favorites. In fact, a day where I don't go to YouTube and watch SOMETHING Les Miserables-related is quite an unusual day for me. I'm about to get very nit-picky. If you've seen this film and are smitten beyond the point of no return, I'd skip this, seriously. If you do take away anything from it though, know that even though I thought this was a heavily flawed adaptation, I walked out of the theater motivated, moved, uplifted, provoked, ready to live my life and so excited to go out and change somebody else's (it hasn't been an easy three months, I have un-published blog-drafts to prove that) and THAT is the magic of this story. 


I'm going to start with the good:



There's a reason I used the poster with this guy's face on it. He's the star of the show. His name is Aaron Tveit and he plays Enjolras. I've always loved this character and this actor. When I saw Wicked on Broadway four years ago, he was Fiyero. Plus, he was in the original cast of the musical Next to Normal which I've had a thing for in the past. I've seen and heard him first-hand and am no stranger to his ability. I had high expectations for him and he surpassed them. I don't want to spoil much...but I'm going to anyway because you should know this bloody story. His death? Perfection. He was also in complete and utter control of the part, vocally. The numbers with the group of students (Red and Black, Drink with Me, Do You Hear the People Sing, etc.) were easily the most powerful of the film and he carried them. Hats off.

I also enjoyed Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Eponine. They both have backgrounds on the stage so I knew they would be ok vocally. Even beyond that though, I think they were more grounded and believable as actors than some of their film-star counterparts. 

My complaints? They were held back. I had no problems with either of them as performers, but I really wasn't digging the way they were directed (that actually speaks for the film as a whole, but especially for these two). Eponine has a very tweeny character-arc and what makes her endearing is that she has two show-stopping numbers and very belty, expressive vocal parts throughout her time in the show. I've seen video of Samantha Barks play this role on stage; she can fill a theater with her voice but it was quite clear that she was being suppressed and told to hold back because there was a camera square in her face. Sure this is a film, and there are some powerful moments that can be done subtly with a camera, but have you ever seen a movie musical and thought "their voice is too strong, too expressive, and too full"? Jennifer Hudson wouldn't have won an Oscar had she sobbed her way through (I'll get to what I thought of Anne Hathaway and I Dreamed a Dream later) And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going. Music is written with its ups and downs for a reason. When it's sung with only downs, it's boring. A really clever blogger I stalk said she enjoyed the film but doesn't want to "live in a world where Eponine doesn't even belt 'known'". Me too Natalie Hill, me too. 

They also cut out my favorite part of "A Little Fall of Rain." Boo.

As far as Samantha Barks herself I thought she was perfect. I don't know that they could've found a better fit for the role. Her experience playing this role on the West End really showed and her youth (oh, that face) worked to her advantage as well.

I thought Eddie Redmayne's Marius was naive, impulsive, endearing and perfect. I just couldn't get past his gyrating jaw. I mean, he was really shaking there.  Once again, had there not been a camera up his nose for the entire film, I probably wouldn't have noticed it. I mean, there were shots where I couldn't see the end of his jaw nor his hairline! Audiences get a very good education on his freckle count and blonde, unshaven chin. He's a rare-case, fantastic singer in this movie though.

Despite bad direction, I was thrilled with both Redmayne and Barks.

The so-so:


When I first heard about the cast, these two were the only film actors that I thought were cast right. They're both just perfectly slimy and creepy enough to play the Thenardiers and while they're not vocal powerhouses, they have the range to handle these roles because they're probably the least vocally demanding in the show. They made me laugh, but I'm pointing my finger at the direction on this one again. They could've upped the stakes about 10 times. They were just way too mellow. Why? My guess: there was a camera maybe four inches from their face for the majority of their screen time like everyone else. Had they even a little bit more room to move their bodies around (or heck, even rotate their necks without getting a bloody nose) they could've really pushed these characters over the top, made us hate their guts while keeping us rolling in the aisles with laughter. Instead they were cute, but mostly forgettable. 


I was rooting for most of the performers that let me down in this movie, but I just naturally wanted to hate Anne Hathaway in this role. In the end  I didn't. She was actually quite remarkable for most of it. I wasn't digging her version of I Dreamed a Dream that was in the trailer for the movie. You see, musicals have some really cool elements; music being the biggest one. That's why they're called musicals. In a play you have a script with just words and that text tells the story. In a sung-through musical with no dialogue (like this one) the lyrics do storytelling in addition to the melodies.

I thought this performance was spectacular right up until I Dreamed a Dream. Then it fell apart. She was believable, likeable, and NAILED the last note of Lovely Ladies ("...already deaaaaaad!"). And the tear that fell from her face after she was finished with her first customer was the most beautiful part of the film. I was so happy that she'd proved me wrong. 

Now I know, everyone will (erroneously) say "they were going for emotion" but I just couldn't be in more opposition. I can't help it. The melody of this song is emotional and rich with history. Not the lyrics, the melody. When it's sung with not just emotion, but volume and clarity, it un-glues people. Remember how Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent became a superstar singing this song? And how everybody was saying her rendition made them cry? To be honest, I don't think her version is anything special, but it's true to the source. She sings with volume and clarity and it penetrated people's hearts. I personally like Kerry Ellis (she was in the ensemble of this movie!), Ruthie Henshall, Sierra Boggess, and Lea Salonga singing this song. (By the way...I told you I'm a YouTube addict). These versions have all three and still take interpretive liberties. When you forget the melody and forget the notes as they're written, the equation is incomplete. It didn't do anything for me.

As soon as this song started, she suddenly stopped being Fantine and turned into Anne Hathaway who desperately wants to win an Oscar and will have an emotional breakdown while singing to prove that she deserves it.  I realize that had they gone for a cleaner version, she probably wouldn't have hit the notes. She worked perfectly to her vocal peak leading up to this number and instead made a selfish acting choice rather than staying true to the material. I can't take this song seriously while the singer is simultaneously convulsing and dry-heaving and whispers the first half. Had I never heard it before, I don't think I would've even caught the lyrics. It wasn't bad, it just didn't work for me. Besides, the songs' placement was moved between Lovely Ladies and Fantine's Arrest rather than being right after At the End of the Day so it was almost like a different song entirely. 

Either way, I give Hathaway a B- (heh) for effort. She wasn't equipped with the right fire-arms vocally, but she did her homework, loved the role, and gave it a good go. Not my favorite portrayal, but it worked.


I was excited to hear that Hugh Jackman was cast in this as well. He got his start in musical theater and has been pretty good at not show-casing it in his long film career. I definitely had the highest of expectations for him. Valjean is the life and breath of this show. It's his story, Javert is the only other character that is critical to the story (pretty much) from start to finish. He had his moments. Honestly, were this my first exposure to Hugh Jackman, I wouldn't have guessed that he had done musical theater before because he was mostly a mess, vocally. I enjoyed him for the first 10 minutes (even though the pacing was a little abrupt, Mr. Hooper) the most. He was really connected to the sub-text and enveloped in Valjean's world. He'd put a lot of thought into it.

He committed way too many vocal sins to be forgiven, however. There was way too much speak-singing. Once again...selfish actor choices. I'd rather them find themselves in the melody. He was looking pretty good in the first half. Who Am I had some speak-singing I wasn't thrilled about, but he hit the notes. Unfortunately my two favorite songs were bastardized. His parts in One Day More completely extinguished any fire that was burning during the number.  He spoke his early lines and the EPIC G4's towards the end were more like vocal exclamation points that he could barely scrape out. Killed the momentum.

The real crime however was Bring Him Home which is for many people, the heart of this show. It's borderline sacred. You're definitely walking holy ground when you're given the privilege of performing this song.  The song demonstrates the immense compassion Valjean has for Marius even though he's just met him. I was looking down and shaking my head during One Day More, but I was looking upward and mouthing "why?!" during Bring Him Home.  I mean NOW YOU WANT TO SHOW US YOUR CHEST VOICE?!?! A good friend of mine told me she thought he sounded deaf during this song. Agreed. Not that he was off-pitch, but that there was zero enunciation  The first verse should be done up in the head. The tender compassion can't really transcend otherwise. 

Were it up to me, I would've cast Ramin Karimloo (played Valjean in the West End earlier this year) in this role without hesitation.



Look at this guy. Listen to this guy! People would've shown up to see him and he would've become a superstar. 

There was a very clear definition between those who were trained vocalists and those who weren't. The ensemble made up of mostly West End performers were outshining the leads throughout, I thought. This could've been twice the movie with vocally competent stage performers who are unknowns in Hollywood. It's Les Miserables, people would've shown up without the big names. 


Ok, the ugly:



Do I even need to explain this one? Two words: Goat. Vibrato.

It was like every high note she attempted was a Miranda Sings finale.


Cosette has to not only be a soprano, but an angelic operatic soprano (that hits the notes!) because if she's not, Eponine is so much more appealing and it really makes Marius look like an idiot. It also highlights her fragility and gives Valjean so much more reason to be over-protective of her every move.

Exhibit A:


Michael Ball as Marius is flanked by three Disney princesses in this concert. Shame on you if you can't name them. Lea Salonga is just...divine. Had she been born 20 years earlier she'd be a prime candidate to bear my children. Too much? 
ANYWAY. 

I'm just showing you this last harmony (by all means pull it back to the beginning and watch the whole four minutes if you have time) because it's so dang beautiful that it makes my eyes roll to the back of my head. Judy Kuhn's soprano perfectly blends with both singers. "Not a dream, after all" is sung by Marius and Cosette with just enough softness to sound like you're floating, but with enough umph to make you sigh. Plus, Eponine's "he will never feel this way" is about as pure as it gets. Add the two together and I'm about to drool. In just this vocal performance alone (forget the lyrics) you can HEAR Cosette's past. You can feel the suffering but also the relief and bliss at meeting a potential love interest. Perfection. An actress in a musical must not just be an actress, but a singer! Moments of musical-storytelling-brilliance like this were completely absent from this film.  
By the way:

This was the most validating moment in my very small YouTube commenting career. Then the channel took it down. Those jerk-faces.



I think this one also goes without saying. For some reason every time he sang, I remembered this kid:


Where was the booming, intimidating, baritone Javert? All we got was an expression-less, practically-humming star wars kid. 

Also, I'd be doing a great disservice if I didn't pay tribute to the un-sung real stars of this film:


The factory ensemble, especially the snake-eyed lady who took the note (holy crap) should be thanked when Anne Hathaway wins her Oscar because they did her worlds of favors in this scene.


Add the Foreman to that list too. His vibrato was creepy-delicious.


Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne was probably the highlight of the film for me. It was the only time that I got teary-eyed. I was spazzing. Pick up the metal object closest to you and hit yourself really hard on the wrist if you don't know who Colm Wilkinson is.


Gavroche and Young Cosette were indeed cutie-patooties. (Reference!)


I know I said it earlier, but, the students. Good grief they were perfect.


As were the Lovely Ladies.

I can't find a picture of them, but the women that sang "did you see them laying side by side?" were also brilliant. The ensemble carried this show and were the performers that kept the fire that is Victor Hugo's Les Miserables burning. 

I hope if anything that this movie makes people run to buy tickets to the live production of it nearest them. I'd rather the movie soundtrack NOT become the definitive recording. The original London, original Broadway, and 10th anniversary recordings are all fantastic and I will be listening to them everyday for months. Also, I am DEFINITELY going to go see Les Miserables at Pioneer Theatre Company this May. Who wants to come with me?!

Look at how much I wrote! I'm a blogger again!

3 comments:

  1. I'm so glad you posted this! Now I feel like I can go see the film with a bit more educated eye on the musical theater aspect.

    Personal victory on the youtube moment!

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  2. I'm glad you liked it! I hope you enjoy it. And that you see it on stage sometime if you haven't already.

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  3. I liked the movie a lot, but MISSED the songs. The words were there but not the voices needed to impart the true genius of this musical classic. It seemed odd that in spite of enjoying the movie, I left feeling let down. Your review put into words the feelings I was left with. Thank you.

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