Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Les Misérables' the Movie: One Theater Geek's Opinion

Les Misérables was the first musical I ever fell in love with.
Growing up 80 miles north of New York City, trips to see Broadway shows were just a quick bus or train ride away. While in elementary school, my mother and I had taken trips to see some family-friendly fare, like Meet Me in St. Louis and Peter Pan, but when I was in 6th grade a bus trip to go see Les Misérables was arranged. I was dying to go; not because I knew anything about the production, but because I simply wanted to go see another show. But Broadway theater tickets aren't cheap (not then, not now), and my mother was concerned that I was too young to fully understand and appreciate the rather adult themes and emotions Les Misérables presents. So she did the unthinkable: She went without me.

And even though now I can see that she was right—a lot of the show probably would have been over my 10-year-old head—I can still very clearly remember the sting of this denial. But after seeing Les Misérables herself and determining I would probably enjoy the music, my mother conceded to buy me the cast album (on cassette!).

For the next year I played the crap out of that tape. I learned all the songs by heart, and my angsty pre-teen heart thought that "On My Own" was simply the best song ever composed (the fact that every boy I was crushing on at the time had the audacity to be indifferent toward me just added fuel to this fire). I eventually wore that tape out and had to purchase another one. By the time that one wore out, I had made the transition to CDs, so I bought the two-disc Original Broadway Cast (OBC) album and discovered to my delight that it had even more songs than the cassette (which was more of a "best of" compilation). I lost no time learning these "new" songs.

When I was in high school another bus trip opportunity to see Les Misérables came along, and this time I was going. I was slightly worried that all the years of anticipation would inevitably lead to disappointment, but fortunately, it was everything I had hoped it would be. The music! The singing! The many, many emotions! The spinning stage! It couldn't have been more wonderful.

I made a trip to NYC to see Les Misérables again while in college, and saw the revamped 25th anniversary touring production a couple of years ago (no more spinning stage, alas). And while I still loved the show, I could finally admit that it's not without flaws. There are so many storylines that many of them get shortchanged and feel rushed (and if you've ever seen the size of the tome the musical is based on, you know that there's already a ton of content that got left out). And some of the songs are less than stellar and/or ridiculously overwrought (I'm looking at you, "A Heart Full of Love").

When I first heard that a movie version of the musical Les Misérables was in the works, I was pretty worried. While I've been enjoying the recent resurgence of the movie musical, most of them haven't translated well to the screen. Then the first stills from the movie were released, and I thought, "Hm...that looks pretty good." Then the teaser trailer with Anne Hathaway singing "I Dreamed a Dream" in a way no one had heard before came out, and I thought, "Hm...that sounds pretty good." (I never understood how that song became a power ballad anyway; did no one ever actually listen to the lyrics?) Then I saw that extended look featurette (before watching Looper, of all movies), and I was no longer worried. Once the movie tickets were on sale, I pre-purchased to see it opening day (aka, Christmas Day).

Much like the stage production, Les Misérables the movie is not without issues. The pacing in certain places feels very off as scenes change before you've fully processed what just happened. The constant zoomed-in close-ups during the big solo songs are jarring, unnecessary, and just add to the pacing issue as they slow the movie way down. And Russell Crowe was woefully miscast as Javert. He casts a formidable presence, which is good, but his singing voice lacks anything resembling gravitas or intimidation, which is...not great. (Though this may not be entirely his fault; after over two decades of listening to the OBC album, the phenomenal Terrence Mann will probably always be the one and only Javert for me.)

But, again, much like the stage production, I still loved the movie, flaws and all. Seeing everything unfold close-up heightens the various emotional impacts, and being able to clearly see the dirty French streets and the desperation in the characters' eyes made me realize for maybe the first time just what a stone-cold bummer of a musical Les Misérables is (and yes, I know what "les misérables" translates to in English, thank you very much). The distance from the stage when in a theater audience, where the actors have to project every song to reach 1,000+ people, can make it easy to miss what exactly is being said and happening to these characters. The movie offers no such buffer, so you see, hear, and feel everything at its full capacity, making it the perfect movie to take someone who claims all musicals are silly, cheesy, happy song-and-dance fests with no substance.

Much has been made about director Tom Hooper's decision to have the actors sing live while being filmed, rather than relying on pre-recorded tracks, and while it's not a revolutionary tactic for musicals in general, it is for movie musicals, and it really works. It doesn't sound as polished as pre-recorded tracks would, but if any musical would benefit from raw, live singing, Les Misérables is it.

Russell Crowe aside, the rest of the cast is excellent. Hugh Jackman successfully transforms himself throughout the various stages of Jean Valjean's life, Anne Hathaway knocks it out of the park, Eddie Redmayne finally made me understand why he's considered one of the hot young actors, and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are the perfect choices for the comic relief Thénardiers. I was especially impressed with Aaron Tveit—who I have never heard of before, and according to IMDB is from my hometown!—as Enjolras, the leader of the student rebels, a role that is often pushed aside on the stage, but is made impossible to ignore by Tveit.

Luckily, cinematic perfection isn't a requirement to making great, effective movies. Les Misérables is a powerhouse of a musical on the stage, and it still holds its own on the screen. Now if Tom Hooper would like to take a stab at translating Miss Saigon into a movie, my inner teenage theater geek will simply be beside herself with glee.