Sunday, January 06, 2013

Deconstructing LES MISERABLES

Les Miserable has made its foray into the annals of movie musicals and I  have done my due diligence in viewing the film.  My wife (@dimplsandcurls) and I have had great fun deconstructing the film and I now wish to share some of our thoughts with you.

First of all, the film was good.  Watching it is a worthwhile experience.  This is true of almost any incarnation of this famous story and the 2012 release does not disappoint.  There are many issues with the film that keep it from being at the top of desirable editions of this perennial favorite.  Foremost among those issues is the fact that, while this is a movie musical, the music was not a featured player.  This is most apparent in the first act.  I expected and looked forward to an intimate view of the players emotions in the performances, after all, what better reason is there to translate the musical from stage to the screen?  However I found the music to be vague, ethereal or tinny which diminished the potency of the film translation.

It appeared to me that the actors and crew were working so very hard to convey emotion while some of the most profound and emotional music ever written was added as an after thought.  This was most noticeable during "I Dreamed a Dream".  Hathaway did an outstanding job expressing her despair and anguish, however, I felt almost none of it.  The music is beautifully tragic on it's own.  Breaking the pace and meter of the song with choke-ups and reflection did not make it more powerful and, in fact, made the performance seem disingenuous to the song.

The second act was much stronger.  It became clear that the effort in emotion from the players existed because they were, in fact, not good singers.  They were adequate for the most part, even good, but poor substitutes for talented voices that use their singing to convey their emotions as much as their expressions.  The second act was full of characters played by singers/actors who were not celebrities.  "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" seemed to be the ideal balance of emotional performances through music and emotional expressions on screen, complete with close ups and face shots to enhance the story telling. "A Heart Full Of Love" was similarly better with the intimacy of film.  I had always considered that sequence to be a weak point of the stage show, but the up close expressions and superbly balanced voices was by far the best rendition of the song I had seen or heard.

"Red and Black" was another great example of seeing the story telling elevated though exposing details in film combined with excellent performances.  It also marked the point I realized another vitally missing element of the movie up to that point: the lack of a strong chorus (or ensemble.)  The power of many voices is one of the great features of a musical and because of the style involved in a film adaption, it was sorely missing.

The virtue of the primary cast's abilities became a powerful asset in the finale.  As Hathaway joined in on finale, she sounded like an angel soaring over Jackman's stricken Valjean.  Their performance finally elicited a tear from me.

While there is more that could be said about the production overall I will limit my thoughts to two points:  One, a more detailed and realistic depiction of the depravity from the novel does not make the production better.  Seeing the poor on the streets was more powerful that singers dressed in grubby clothing.  Seeing what it is actually like to drag someone through the overflowing excrement of Paris' sewers was not..  This is also true for the the realities of prostitution and the gore of battle.

Finally, don't discount the comic relief   "Master of the House" is a bright, buoyant and boisterous window in a story of tragedy.  Indeed Master and Mistress Thenadier serve this purpose throughout the film.  It is true, they are also there to be evil bottom feeders out to spoil the lives of our protagonist, but the stage production always assured that their evil was sugar coated enough to preserve the power of their comic relief.  In the film adaptation, the effort to create comedy was so over the top that it distracted me from the film and brought me out of the moment.  Later on, the acts of Thenadier are so vile and stark to the traditional character that his comedic appearances are castrated.  Carter and Cohen were NOT good choices for these beloved characters and the lack of whimsy in the production was profoundly missed.

Let me wrap up by saying that "Stars" may have been favorite piece of the show.  Russel Crowe is clearly not a good singer but he was an excellent Javert.  The arrangement of the orchestration in "Stars" was a fine compliment to the outstanding imagery of that number.  Watch the resolute Crowe before Notre Dame, the stone eagle and beautiful sky told volumes about Javert's character that I had not considered.  It was truly a stunning moment.

I hope you have enjoyed our little critique of  Les Miserables.  I hope I have not put words in Hannah's mouth, and if so I hope she will point out her dissent here.  But many of these observations I would not have made without her so I feel that she should be included in the credit for this piece.

Douglas T.  (JeepCruzer) has performed music on stage and in studio for more than 30 years and has produced bands on stage as owner of  Dee Jay Doug & Imagination Music Works, a Sound Reinforcement and Dee Jay business.  You can find Dee Jay Doug on Facebook or you can contact Doug via E-mail or Twitter

1 comment:

Allison said...

I found it interesting that I disagree with you on almost every point! I thought Anne Hathaway's performance, particularly during "I Dreamed a Dream", was so raw and real that it only added to the emotion of the music. That song has never been a favorite of mine, and I've never actually felt that much emotion from it, either on the CD or during any of the performances I've seen, but she made it so real for me. Chris thinks that she made what was otherwise a stellar cast look bad in comparison.

I loved the Thenardiers and thought the over-the-top performances by Carter and Cohen were perfect for the film. It is true that in the stage show their evil is more sugar-coated, but I honestly didn't find them to be distracting.

I do agree that there were some parts that were made better with the intimacy of film, but I also think (as it appears you do) that it took away from some parts as well.

Like you, though, I also really loved Russell Crowe as Javert. I know a lot of people have criticized his singing, but for some reason I felt the emotion in "Stars" more than I ever have before. I agree - a stunning moment.

You didn't mention my favorite part: "One Day More". I have always loved that song, I think mostly for its epic proportions, and the film version did not disappoint. In fact, when it ended it was all I could do to keep from leaping out of my seat and applauding. The power of a huge ensemble number in a stage show was really brought home in that piece.

This comment is long enough already, so I'll just say that I think an adaptation of a play that is so powerful for so many will have many differing opinions, and that's perfectly fine. A friend and I were talking about it a few weeks ago, and we were surprised to find that our opinions on Eponine vs. Cosette were completely opposite, but we both absolutely love the show. So, thanks for writing a review and giving me some things to think about :)