This week, Mitchell takes a night off from fathering to go to the movies. Here’s his opinion on Les Mis!
Wait a minute… another posting about Les Mis on the “Musical Notes” blog? Well… given that it’s the most popular movie musical to come out in recent years, I think it’s worth the space!
While I had quibbles with the film, for me this was the most successful movie musical that has come out in my lifetime (I still like many of the ‘oldies’ best including Fiddler On The Roof, Cabaret, Oliver, etc.). I believe that this is all because the actors were singing live and not recorded to track like all of the other movie musicals of recent year.
One of the things that moves me most about musical theatre is that when emotion becomes too intense, song allows it to be expressed in a way that words cannot. The power of song enables complete suspension of disbelief so that I never once think “Why did they just start singing?”. However in musical films, I constantly think “STOP SINGING!” “Why are you singing?” “What the heck is going on?”. I get completely pulled out of the action and suddenly understand all of my friends who just don’t ‘get’ musical theatre. There has always been something jarring for me about the realistic aesthetic of a movie suddenly adding singing. Many recent musicals have tried to mask this problem by making all of the songs “dream sequences” (e.g. Chicago), recognizing that storytelling through song in a realistic medium doesn’t quite work.
Well Les Mis worked. It was the first time that the use of song to tell a story and expressing emotion transferred to the screen for me effectively. Having the actors sing live gave them the same freedom that a stage actor would have to express their emotion through song, and not have to lip-sync to something recorded in a previous session. Could you imagine if you watched a movie where all of the dialogue had been recorded in a studio and the actors were lip-syncing their lines? It would have about as much emotional impact as watching one of those badly dubbed foreign films where the voice just doesn’t match the thing you are watching.
Don’t get me wrong. Shooting the singing live had its drawbacks. Some of the cast are not meant to be singing live. They are definitely actors and not singers. And not in the “they are such great actors that I forget that they can’t really sing” sort of way. All of the songs were shot within an inch of the actor’s nose without any cuts or wide shots. I assume this is because the songs were shot in one take without click tracks, and that multiple shots would have rendered inconsistent tempos. But really, sometimes seeing each drip coming out of an actor’s nose during a 5 minute solo is a bit intense. Additionally, because the shots had to be so tight, you realize how unusual it is for film to simply focus on one person for so long. In a theatre, we can afford to stop time in order to hear a character monologue (or in this case, sing a song). On screen, we are so used to movement that it’s jarring (and dare I say boring) to watch Hugh Jackman sing “Bring Him Home” which could be summed up in a 1 sentence “Dear god, take care of this young man” spoken line. It subsequently made an epic story feel like an eternity.
But those are minor quibbles. Overall, I found more clarity in the story of Les Miserables than I ever did onstage, and – most importantly – I believed the ‘expression-through-music’ narrative. And given how many musical films just can’t capture the overwhelming sensation that musical storytelling can achieve, I thought that the way Les Miserables captured at least a kernel of musical theatre magic deserves significant celebration and accolades.
And in response to Nathaniel’s review last week, I did not cry until the last 5 minutes. I must have a heart of coal.