In Praise of the Perfectly Imperfect Les Misérables, the Future of Movie Musicals
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In Praise of the Perfectly Imperfect Les Misérables, the Future of Movie Musicals

By Sarah Carlson | Think Pieces | January 4, 2013 | Comments ()


It may not have made our Top 10 list for the year, but Les Misérables still ranks as an important addition to the world of movie musicals. Not enough can be made of director Tom Hooper's decision to film his actors singing live on set instead of in a recording studio months before filming. The choice is worth celebrating not only because the actors deliver such immediate and emotional performances but because those performances aren't impeccable. Yes -- the imperfections of the cast fit the musical perfectly.

Purists, hear me out. We can start by agreeing that as Inspector Javert, Russell Crowe is the weakest link in a chain of actors with varying degrees of musical talent bringing the sung-through tale of the woe-begotten in early 19th century France to even more masses. Yet there is something almost democratic about someone who isn't trained in stage performance having a shot at a coveted role, even if it was his famous face and name that likely landed him the part. Some of the leads have performed musical theater on Broadway, notably Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Samantha Barks (Eponine) and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras). But many of the performers aren't nearly as polished: Amanda Seyfried warbles as Cosette, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do more talking than singing as the Thénardiers. More than a line or two is practically drowned out by an actor's sobbing, which the surprisingly good Eddie Redmayne (Marius) uses to great effect during "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." But what else should we expect from "the wretched of the earth"? If there's a musical that should not be so pretty, it's "Les Misérables." I've seen the stage production twice and listened to its music (the 10th Anniversary Concert is my favorite) countless times, but Les Misérables brought Victor Hugo's story to life as I had never before experienced it. The narrative choices made to better the flow of the story on screen combined with the risks taken by the actors in their performances make the film a vital component in the sprawling "Les Mis" canon. It doesn't replace the stage musical; it enhances it. Fans should embrace the flaws for the realism they bring to this story of redemption. This is the future of movie musicals.

On film, "Les Misérables" becomes more accessible and relatable. Of course, stage productions and films have to be viewed and critiqued differently. The nature of the change of medium means that elements of a musical will be toned down for the transition from stage to screen -- there's no need to project enough to reach the back row when your performance is actually being projected for all audience members to take in equally. Likewise, there is no need to sing about the actions one is taking -- the film gets to show audiences members instead of telling them. Yet there is something different about Les Misérables compared to many movie musicals adapted from the stage. Singing one's way through life feels completely normal and expected because that is what the actors are doing: singing their way through each scene. The movie makes the argument that an adaptation does not have to mirror the original.

In this interview, Jackman narrates a scene from the film ("Who Am I? / The Trial") and explains how singing live on the set afforded him a freedom for making decisions about his character he would not have had otherwise:

Barks performed as Epinone on stage in London as well as for the 25th Anniversary Concert in 2010, and the softening of her solo, "On My Own," in her reprisal of the role on film demonstrates the importance of recalibrating of song and story for the screen.



A bigger change comes from Anne Hathaway, whose performance as Fantine best exemplifies how film can enhance a story. She is worth the ticket price alone. For those unfamiliar with the plot: Fantine is a working-class woman in 1821 France who loses her factory job when it is discovered she has a child, Cosette, out of wedlock. Cosette lives in a different town under with the Thénardiers, cruel and abusive innkeepers who constantly demand more money from Fantine to care for Cosette. Desperate, and believing Cosette is ill and in need of money, Fantine sells her hair and two teeth and sends the earnings to the Thénardiers. Eventually, she becomes a prostitute.

In the musical, Fantine sings the famous "I Dreamed a Dream" immediately after losing her job but before she runs into the "lovely ladies" of the night, sells her hair and teeth and becomes a prostitute. The song serves almost as a segue into her descent -- her dreams of living with her long-gone lover are not just dashed, they are dead, killed by the indifference of life. In the film version, however, the order of events is reversed. She loses her job, sells her hair and teeth, succumbs to prostitution ("Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap/Join your sisters, make money in your sleep") and -- immediately after her first customer leaves her used body behind on a bed -- softly begins her song of despair. This narrative change is powerful, and striking -- and better than the original. Now she is at her lowest -- now "life has killed the dream (she) dreamed." "I Dreamed a Dream" isn't simply a pretty-sounding song belted out by reality TV contestants. It is a crushing declaration of hopelessness, a belief that life is short, cold and cruel. And experiencing Hathaway sing it -- in one take, largely in close-up and through tears -- I realized I had heard the song countless times but never really listened to it. This is what it means to be miserable.

Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream," 2012

Compare this to the various incarnations of the song. Of course, the major stars who have portrayed Fantine are excellent and delivered great performances. But Hathaway's by far feels the bravest.

Patti LuPone, Original London Cast Recording, 1985

Ruthie Henshall, 10th Anniversary Concert, 1995

Lea Salonga, 25th Anniversary Concert, 2010

Again, the task set before Hathaway compared to that which was before the stage actresses was different, and we are not comparing apples to apples here. But Hathaway's performance, as well as Hooper and company's decision to rearrange the song order and thus the narrative, have changed Fantine as the musical fans know her. The same can be said for the rest of the characters, even Crowe's stiff-limbed Javert. Les Misérables is more than a filmed adaptation of a familiar show; it is a rediscovery of the story. Do you hear the people sing? They sound kind of like you and me, and that's important.

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Nicholas

    Wait, why are we acting like this is something groundbreaking when Bjork was able to blend both approaches with flawless perfection in far more gut wrenching fashion?

  • apsutter

    The 10th Anniversary concert is amazing but the 25th is my favorite(except for Nick Jonas as Marius.) Alfie Boe is so good as Jean Valjean and I love Lea as Fantine. Valjean's death and the reprise of "Can You Hear the People Sing" gives me chills. Yet the best part of the concert is the very end when they bring out the original cast and they all sing "One Day More." It's just breathtaking and Michael Ball as Marius is the highlight for sure.

  • duckandcover

    Crowe doesn't have the extensive stage background that Jackman or Barks did, but I didn't think he was all that bad. He was simply in the wrong genre of music; I loved his croon, but when you think Javert, you think Quast. Crowe was an excellent physical specimen for Javert, but his voice type wasn't cutting it. I don't think he was weak, though -- just miscast.

  • Mrs. Julien

    Ruthie Henshall. Jesus Christ, Ruthie Henshall.

    Jesus Christ, Anne Hathaway, too. "He took my childhood in his stride" - I've always wondered how different people interpret that and I LOVED her vehemence.

    I'm afraid to see this movie, that it will rip my heart out and hold it in front me still beating.

  • And I forgot to add: I've listened to "On my Own" so many times that it's almost come to sound more than a little cheesy. It wasn't until the movie that I remembered just how heartbreaking it really is. Her sitting in the rain, in the dark, dirty and miserable, realizing she's completely was like listening to the song for the first time.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    What if...we stop calling them "musical theater on film" and just starting calling them "musical films"? They are different media with very different needs.

    I haven't seen Les Miz yet and I do hope to (though Django will come first). The ideas behind it sound fascinating and also have the potential for flaws, and I've liked some clips I've seen while being disappointed in others.

    But ANY film director should only be bringing a musical to the movies if s/he has a take on it, like Rob Marshall's Chicago, which was a re-imagining of the book/concept. (and heaven hope those musicals that still keep trying to put a movie on stage without re-contextualizing)

  • popcultureboy

    I am not going to agree that Russell Crowe is the weakest link in the chain with this film, as it happens. For me, the biggest fail was Helena Bonham-Carter.

    Why do people think she can sing? She has a pretty voice, but it's reed thin and breathy, generally it's barely there. NONE of those qualities are right for Madame Thenardier. She needs to be bawdy, she needs to be rowdy, she needs to be loud, she needs to have some oomph to her performance. HBC wafts around, delivering all her lines at 100mph at a decibel level a fraction above a whisper, making no impression whatsoever. This really required someone with a far earthier presence and a gutsy sounding voice to carry it off.

  • Awesome piece.

    And I don't know about anyone else, but it was by far my favorite movie of 2012. I can't remember the last time I was so moved by a film. It's been two days and I can't stop thinking about it.

  • HasenKlub

    Wonderfully written article! I was squealing with delight upon seeing a Think Piece on the subject of Les Mis, and I completely agree with the changing placement of IDAD being a very profound difference (in a good way).

    However, after reading through the comments and seeing how many times various people have seen the stage production, I think that possibly maybe I might be a little bit kinda sorta crazy. I've seen it seven times...

    I need help...

  • Jennifer Schmennifer

    Let me just say? You are not alone. Also, I still own dozens of cast recordings in different languages...many of which I don't even speak. I kind of got over it several years ago, but the anticipation of the movie revived the obsession at least for a little while.

  • Puddin

    I'm all for exploring the intimacy of a musical through the medium of film, but for the love of God, use some freaking trained, professional singers when you do it. You don't send Johnny Depp to do Len Cariou's work. Some of these film incarnations make a complete mockery of some of the finest scores in music history.

  • You have summarized everything I've been telling people about the movie since I saw it a week ago. It is not another concert film. It's an adaptation of the musical scaled for screen. I think the narrative changes were brilliant (I never did like the place IDAD held in the flow of the story on stage) and the more intimate style worked in an emotional capacity that belting would not have done. Regarding 'I Dreamed a Dream' -- the thing that always struck me as extra sad about that song is that it's the thoughts of a young person who has utterly abandoned hope. I think the movie performance captured that despair in a way that felt more real than any stage production I've seen.

  • poopnado

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Across the Universe use live recording? If so, this isn't really ground-breaking. I also think there are also major drawbacks to live singing and giving the actors so much freedom. Some (like Hathaway) chose to play their roles as extremely depressing and serious, while others (Baron-Cohen) went over-the-top goofy. I realize these are different characters with very different personalities, but the changes were jarring and should have been reigned in.

    I feel like Hooper really should have done more to unite the cast. Each individual performance felt like just that--individual. There was no ensemble. This was compounded by the fact that Hooper overused extreme closeups to the point that I (and the friends I saw the movie with) felt claustrophobic.

    A stage production has the advantage of common space. Although (especially in Les Mis) there are huge set changes, you're still in the space of the theater. You can believe things about the characters and their actions that are otherwise unrealistic (why do Cosette and Marius fall in insta-love? Oh right, it's Broadway).

    Got off track there, but I do agree that the performances were emotional and raw, and really incredible. I do like the live-singing technique and I look forward to more directors using it, but I don't like what Hooper did with it. The movie felt like a bunch of scenes sewn together at odd angles.

  • Can't speak about Across the Universe, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch used live vocals for sure. The only novelty here is the piano accompaniment in the ear, which is a disaster.

    People who aren't trained musical performers don't instinctively know how to properly phrase a song. Shoot, trained musical performers don't always make the best choices. They get caught in the moment and want the world to stop for them when the score needs to keep moving.

    I work as a music director for musical theater. The day I agree it's a good idea to let the performer set their own tempo beat by beat is the day I should retire for I no longer have the skill necessary to conduct a show. This film needed someone conducting the actors on set to make sure there weren't gigantic pauses in every ballad (save On My Own, sung by Samantha Barks for years in touring and concert casts before appearing in the film) that killed the composition.

    Rubato is the tricky push and pull of tempo for dramatic effect. It is not the same as sitting there and crying for a good 15, 20 seconds while the synth strings hold out a chord and you show how hard it is to act. Maybe this experiment would have worked with all live theater actors who are well-versed in the material. This did not because these actors were mostly not musicians.

  • Jo 'Mama' Besser

    I think my uterus stared performing a morris dance over your rubato stance. I used to be a piano teacher and if you want me to play or teach you to play the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata money WILL be paid to me before anything gets off the ground. Chopin always said that it's for the right hand only, Score Slashers, please!!! It's not meant as display for sentiment addicts to explode at the audience with overwrought poseur dramatics (or a cover for all the chords you can't play in time), so just play the damned song, Debussy knew what he was doing, the turkey wasn't dry, you just wanted everyone taste your cruddy gravy.

    I don't talk shop about music with anyone who doesn't share my last name, and even it's usually when my sister wants me to remind her about the name and workings of a tierce de Picardie. Anyone else would find me to be an insufferable prig (if I ever brought it up, which will never happen, I'm not that cruel) if I launched into a rant about the solemn reverence I and my clah-si-cal training (early 20th-century French specialist: What Would Poulenc Do? See, don't you hate me already?) must be cowed by my staggering, um--staggering-ness. I'm not THAT stupid.


    To the supporters of natural singing: I hear ya, and I like natural performance, but no so natural as to forget that it's even a song. It's a musical, realism lays in a tomb in that situation, no? I'm not trying to nag,but what's so wrong with people doing their jobs well? I suspect that it's the professional musicians and not the actors who are belting out the misery 1. because they're not the ones who aren't within their familiar space,it's the actors who have to adapt and that can be rocky. 2. These days, even opera singers are hugely encouraged to take acting lessons, and there are acting for singer courses offered in heavy, heavy supply so that the sturm und drang is kept to a minimum if that is what's required, so there's less anxiety for them, I would think.

    I completely understand why people may partial the live singing, but something is going to take you out of the performance, so why not let it be beauty instead of lack of skill. Yes, I know I'm not coming off well. To me, it's the difference between 'huh' of watching verfremdungseffekt and the 'huh' you get from watching a performer forget his lines.

    I know how I'm coming off, but I still very respectfully part ways with the live singing support and hope that I wasn't too shrill in my defense of it.

  • ShagEaredVillain

    This is what I love about Pajiba. You can see words like "rubato" and "verfremdungseffekt" in the same thread as "Poopnado."

    Mama, you come off fine, but you can't bring Brechtian theory into your argument without admitting that there's a place for everything. I say this not to insult you, but to say that you're the person in this thread with whom I'd most want to discuss this film. Forgive me, I worked recently on a very large Brecht revival, and I still wince at methods that sound German.

    I've seen the Les Mis national tour several times. I also saw it on Broadway and on the West End. The movie was very different, and I loved the living hell out of it anyway. (If anything hindered my enjoyment, it was my involvement in "Forbidden Broadway." Valjean was looking down at a sleeping Marius, and my dad leaned over and whispered, "It's Too High." I snorted and punched him.)

    As someone who moved from music studies to theatre studies, I've loosened my grip* on much of the musical theory I once embraced. When I was in the orchestra, I looked down my nose at singers; I don't think I even acknowledged actors... But when it became less about the hundreds of years of tradition and more about the love of storytelling, I started to find joy in the flaws.

    Does that mean I stopped taking voice lessons and otherwise striving to become a better singer and actor? Or that I enjoy unskilled performances? No. But if there's a place for a small misstep, it's during a solo in a musical theatre piece from the 80's.

    The live singing resonates with us as an audience in a way we haven't seen before. If there's a live venue that could imitate the intimacy of this film, the audience would feel like their presence was inappropriate. That kind of performance would seem almost indecent. The screen gives us that window into the character that's so rare (for now).

    I've performed many of these songs in different venues. Never in an actual production because I'm too old and non-union, but I've had the chance to step into Valjean, Marius, and Javert's shoes. It's difficult to explain, but I've told people that watching this movie is the closest thing I've felt to actually performing the material.

    So many of my friends have nitpicked straight tones and critiqued the changes that were made, but they're not seeing the forest for all the trees. If you're on board with what they're trying to do, you can love this as much as the many other incarnations of this show.

    Sure, I wondered at times if Hugh Jackman was just making shit up to get through the exposition. Some of my most beloved lyrics were altered and lost. But on the flip side, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne slew me, and they changed one chord in "Little Fall of Rain," that reduced me to heaving sobs.

    Did the actors have a little too much leeway? At times, obviously. But they weren't fighting with a conductor. The orchestra had a very consistent recording to build around. It came together into something unique and beautiful. Gorgeous, really.

    *I haven't let theory go entirely, and that's why I can't help but mention that Crowe's Javert was just plain awful.

  • e jerry powell

    Yeah, I thought that whole method was kind of lame and nearly unworkable. I had a similar experience working in storefront theater during a production of King and I. Because of the way the space was structured, the orchestra had to be behind the stage and upstairs. "Getting to Know You" with all the untrained kids playing the King's children turned into an unholy nightmare.

  • bartap

    I saw the Broadway musical 3 different times and I own every version but one of the music from the show. Suffice it to say, I know the musical backwards and forwards. Somehow, the movie still made it fresh to me and had me crying me throughout, far more than I've ever cried during a movie before. I may have had to hand in my man card as I left the theater, but I loved it.

  • e jerry powell

    That counts for 200 points towards the musical theatre requirements for your Q-card, though. I can validate your points for you, if you'd like.

  • Jennifer Schmennifer

    Me too, bartap. I could sing the whole thing, so the changes really stood out for me. I don't think I would have responded to it as emotionally if they hadn't moved things around and added some stuff from the book. It really threw me off, but in a good way (except for "Suddenly," which I hated).

    I loved how they moved Fantine's song, for example. And how Valjean sees the Bishop in the end. (Even though I really liked when Fantine and Eponine sang together on stage, having the Bishop there stayed true to the book.)

  • PerpetualIntern

    And I thought bring the bishop back paid a nice tribute to Colm Wilkinson, too.

  • e jerry powell

    But Sarah, the days of Ethel Merman are long gone. Almost nobody on Broadway these days has the pipes to carry to the back wall of the house anymore. Even Patti LuPone (one of Merman's successors as Mama Rose, alongside Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Angela Lansbury and Bette Midler) regularly uses amplification now, so the assertion that performances need to be toned down for film is kind of empty. Only Wagnerian opera requires massive voices these days, because they have to sing over gargantuan orchestras in massive opera houses, not little 600-seaters in midtown Manhattan with the minimum pit crew that the AFM contract requires.

  • Even with microphones, someone in a live theater setting would need to sell it to the cheap seats so to speak as it is harder to see facial expressions, or really to see much of anything at all, when you are in the upper seats at a live performance. So with a movie you can be more subtle as everyone can actually see you and it can be more intimate.

  • e jerry powell

    That much is definitely true.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    It really is a physicality thing. As a theater performer, I cringed watching the dailies of my one (so far) attempt at film - I was like, yo, director, why didn't you tell me to TONE IT DOWN? I looked like I was flailing all over the place.

  • NateMan

    I took my wife to see this on Monday. Or, perhaps more accurately, she said I owed her for forcing her to watch Thor in theaters while 8.5 months pregnant, so I agreed to go. And I have to say... As a hetero male, with no interest in musicals outside the South Park movie and Reefer Madness, Les Mis Did Not Suck. I won't watch it again and it hadn't been my first choice, but it wasn't nearly as boring or painful as I though it would be.

  • Jennifer Schmennifer

    LOL at the description of Russell Crowe as " someone who isn’t trained in stage performance." He performed in major Australian productions of "Rocky Horror" and "Blood Brothers" before his film career took off. He at least had more experience than Amanda Seyfried on that account.

    Apropos, when I used to work in casting, one producer wanted us to check Crowe's availability for a Broadway show. His agency (at the time?) told us that the answer would always be no and that "If Russell decides he wants to do stage, he'll come up with his own project."

  • Guest

    Doesn't he also have (or had) that band with the precious name, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts? He must be pisspoor frontman if he can't do something with a popular musical number.

    (I wouldn't know, not having seen/heard any of his singing...just saying.)

  • Jennifer Schmennifer

    YouTube clips tell me this is true.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    You should look up the impromptu "Confrontation" he did with Jackman while Crowe was doing a cabaret set at The Public. someone posted it here a few weeks ago. When he can let loose physically, he did a great job singing it - he rocks it out, and they are having fun. But the multi-tasking of acting and singing difficult (non-rock) music at he same time eluded him.

    I haven't seen the musical yet - but the director asked people to sing big music live in a medium that favors delicate performances. It seems the kind of thing that of course would yield performances all over the map and with varying degrees of success.

  • Jennifer Schmennifer

    I did see it and was highly entertained. But rocking it out is not exactly what Javert should be doing in that song, and I actually didn't have a problem with the way Crowe did it in the movie. My biggest complaints about his movie performance had to do with Javert's two solos. One of the other comments here mentioned what a mistake it was to leave the song pacing up to the actors, and I think that was most evident in Javert's last song. It didn't serve as a good counterpart to Valjean's version of that song, and kind of lost the point of having these two characters sing the same song at major turning points in their personal struggles.

  • "We can start by agreeing that as Inspector Javert, Russel Crowe is the weakest link."

    I do not agree with this premise. He was capable of singing without tears rolling down his face or the ghastly need to turn into a grotesque caricature of an opera singer. That alone put him above half of the leading cast in appropriateness for a movie musical. I don't want to be able to count your fillings when you sing on film.

  • Samantha Klein


  • cheryl

    More of this. All of the "good singers" in the movie acted through their singing alone, Russell acted with everything. You know, like a film actor is supposed to do in a film. This was not, after all, a concert.

  • KatSings

    This was brilliant and I'll be sharing it. I am, in most ways, a musical theater purist. That said, I think it's truer to the art to let this breathe the way it does. The choices were fresh (for a show I've seen 4 times, that's saying something), the performances visceral. And the ability to use close up camera shots during songs to capture the emotional nuance helped make the film more personal than it can be in a theater. This is NOT knocking live theater - there is nothing quite like being there and feeling it all with the performers, live. But each medium has its limitations, and I loved that Hooper took the time to show the ways a movie could change a play for the better.

  • God of Bal-Sagoth

    I likely won't see Les Mis in theaters, and generally speaking, musicals are not my thing.

    That said, this piece? Loved it. Fascinating and insightful and interesting.

  • Miss Laaw-yuhr

    Total agreement - that's twice today Bal. I am not a musical sort of person, much less a Les Mis fan, but this thoughtful analysis made me think I might give it a try on rental.

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