Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Les Mis, The Musical Movie: More "Less", More "Mis"; Less Movie, Less Musical

I had a chance to see not one, but two movies over the holidays. (In regards to the frequency of my movie-going, this is a statement somewhat akin to saying that I had the chance to grow not one, but two, extra heads.) I think Darwin might write about seeing The Hobbit, so my one-sentence assessment is: trim all the fat, but leave me my Martin Freeman. Alas, Darwin didn't get to see Les Mis with me, which was a loss because a) I missed him, and b) he doesn't know the musical at all, so I would have been very interested in his take. As it is, you're stuck with mine.

I didn't read the WSJ review before seeing the movie, because by the time I went out to get the paper on Wednesday it was under six inches of snow, and no amount of excavating in the yard could bring it to light, and I refused to just get online to check the review when I already had the stupid paper in my yard. (I did get hit on for the first time in a good ten years, by some oddball out jogging, when I was out shoveling for it. I'm still trying to assess whether this means that I'm so completely hot that someone would try to pick me up while I'm wearing Darwin's big coat and my nose is running, and my hair is hanging in matted snowy tangles in my face, or whether it's a judgment on my ordinary appearance that I only get hit on when I am thus concealed.)

Oh, but you wanted to hear about the movie. You know the plot. Everyone knows the plot: revolution and redemption. Barricades rise; deathbed scenes jerk tears, love is lost and found, some cute kids steal the show. It's all here, and it's good to see. Even when the movie disappoints, it disappoints affectingly.

The big buzz on Les Mis was the ground-breaking filming technique of having the actors sing live, as opposed to lip-syncing over a pre-recorded soundtrack. This is huge. In theory, it should give performances an immediacy and an emotional resonance that is unprecedented in big screen musicals. In practice, it mostly worked. The acting was fabulous, and everyone's talking Oscars for Anne Hathaway and her shorn head. She sang emotionally.  So did Hugh Jackman. They emoted just fine to the accompaniment of the piano coming through their hidden earpieces.

The only problem with this was the fact that, well, Les Mis is a musical. There's more to the show than acting, and more than singing as well. There's melodic line, there's the tempo of the whole piece, there's virtuosity. I missed that. An aspect of this new immediate style of emotional singing -- musical cabaret, if you will -- was that there was a strange disconnect between the very personalized, sometimes harsh singing, and the underscored orchestrations. In the beginning of the movie, it was almost as if the tempo of the singing didn't match the tempo of the music -- almost as if the editors had not been able to sync up the vocal soundtrack and the musical soundtrack. It threw me out from the start, and although things managed to come together fairly quickly, that dissonance stayed with me throughout the movie.

Perhaps that speaks to the difficulty of filming musicals. There's an interplay between live orchestra and live singing that requires a wonderful discipline from the actor to be able to match the pace and the musicality and the volume of the orchestra. Actor Eddie Redmayne said in a video interview that the set pianist would follow the actors' singing and interpretation, and it that was obvious in the way the actors felt able to indulge in quirks of dramatic timing.  Another effect of the immediacy of filmed live singing: almost every scene involved whispery singing and half spoken lines. Again: fabulous acting; very hard on the musical flow of the song.

Now, when it worked, it worked beautifully. Eddie Redmayne, who played Marius, was a standout, a true singer who was able to maintain a virtuosic beauty of tone both in his intimate passages and in the big show-stoppers. The best moment in the movie, to my mind, was his rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables", a gloriously melodic outpouring of grief for lost friends in which, for all the emotion, the actor never lost sight of the fact that he was not just acting, but also singing a song. Here, the live singing was a true boon -- watching Mr. Redmayne belt it out, you could tell by his breathing, by his projection, that this was no mere lip-sync job. I feared, at the beginning of the song, that the director was going to film the whole thing in closeup, again (he forebore, thank God); by the end, I was lost in the music. That moment was the closest I came during the movie to tears.

More than honorary mention has to go to Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the smoldering leader of the student revolutionaries, and to the band of students themselves. These guys were the real deal, true Broadway-class singers, and they never let the movie drag by losing the beat. Their scenes were the closest the movie came to matching the real excitement of a stage performance -- and I say this as one who hasn't seen Les Mis live.

My sister-in-law and I disagreed on Amanda's Seyfried's Cosette -- she disliked her small, high vibrato; I thought her voice was sweet and ethereal and very much in character.

The sets were wonderful -- what we were able to see of them blurred behind the extreme closeups of the actors. I missed the cinematic aspect of the cinema. Rarely did the camera pull back, but when it did, the payoff was big and lush, and the music was truer. "One Day More", always a showstopper, was a marvelous example of the magic that could be made when Tom Hooper, the director, allowed himself to treat the movie as a movie, while allowing for the natural lull in action that applause provides in live theater.

Why don't I mention the big stars -- Jackman, Hathaway, Crowe? No one can quarrel with these people as actors, of course, and the camera lingered on Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in particular, picking up every Oscar-worthy nuance and grimace and tear, to the detriment of the cinematic element of the film. A bold move, yes, to film Anne Hathaway singing "I Dreamed a Dream" entirely in one close shot, as an effective monologue, but you know what? That's not a technique that serves monologues well, as I've noticed in the low-budget BBC Shakespeare adaptations. It's hard to focus on someone's face for five minutes, even if she's crying her eyes out (or, a more effective technique that every actor knows, trying hard not to cry her eyes out). And again, something that was lost in the tears and the emoting was the song itself. Anne Hathaway has a pretty voice, and perhaps a fine voice, but although she may have been directed to act her heart out, she never sang her heart out. And that's a bit of a problem, in a musical.  Hugh Jackman -- excellent, yes, yes, and yet, he did not often seem to allow the song to guide him instead of vice versa. Russell Crowe is a great actor, but he often had the faintest hint of the deer-in-the-headlights terror of someone who finds himself in front of a lot of people, singing something just beyond his capabilities. (We've all been there, Russell.) The strain of keeping up with the technical demands of the role seemed to prevent him from truly delving into the character of Javert and putting his own unique twist on it, but the director did some interesting character work with camera angles and with the recurring motif of Javert confidently pacing the extreme edge of very high ledges.

Do I sound like I didn't enjoy the show? I did, very much. But I found myself oddly unmoved and slightly removed from a lot of the action, when I thought likely that even I, generally reserved audience member than I am, would be affected. I didn't expect to sob through the show (Lord have mercy!), but I had hoped to be more invested in more scenes. As it was, the actors poured out so much raw emotion that there wasn't that much left for me to do. And the ending did make me raise my eyebrows, wondering why poor Fantine couldn't get her hair back in heaven, and for that matter, questioning the theology of heaven as one big fraternal barricade. (I half expected the camera to pull away from the vast chorus inside the barricade to reveal the single figure of Javert standing outside the wall.)

Still, go see it.


BettyDuffy said...

I agree 100 % with your review. Joe and I saw it yesterday, and I couldn't tell if it was the theater or the movie in the first ten minutes or so that sounded a little tinny, and gave me vertigo--it was just so much of Jackman's nose. It got better for me as it went along, but I missed the big full choruses and harmonies.

mrsdarwin said...

The thing is, I'm absolutely convinced that this is the template for film musicals going forward. It's the right way to do it, but there has to be more discipline in the recording -- you can't play so fast and loose with the vocal line for the sake of drama; you have to find the drama within the confines of the song. And it definitely can be done, as the good scenes attest.

Also, when almost every song is wrung for maximum emotional impact, the production as a whole loses pace. It reminded me a bit of watching Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl -- every song was the biggest song, every song was the showstopper, and after a while it grew seriously wearing.

mrsdarwin said...

And when the characters did sing in harmony, or when the chorus rang out, the discipline of having to work together made a startling difference.

bearing said...

I hope it makes lots of money and encourages more movie makers to do musicals. I love them. Would like to see some revivals of the classics.

JMB said...

My only complaint in hindsight is that I didn't read the reviews and I had no idea the Sasha Baron Cohen scenes would be so bawdy. Let's just say, I was there with my mom and my ten year old daughter and I felt a little negligent as a parent - esp the Santa Claus/Father Christmas scene. Other than that, we loved it. I didn't cry as much as I thought I would, but I fell in love with Eddie R. What a cutie!