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