December 29, 2012

Why the "Les Miz" Movie Makes Me Happy

It’s no surprise that film critics are pooh-poohing the new movie version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s pop opera Les Misérables.  Just as it’s no surprise that people are flocking to see it (the movie took in $18 million when it opened on Christmas Day, beating out Tom Cruise, Quentin Tarantino and the elves and wizards of “The Hobbit”).  And perhaps it’s no surprise to regular readers to hear that I’m with the people on this one.

But the latter is a bit of a surprise to me. Although it ran for 16 years on Broadway, has been performed in 43 countries and seen by some 60 million people, Les Miz, as it’s come to be known, is not my favorite musical. Just between you and me, I fell asleep when I saw the original production back in the ‘80s. 

I did do better when my theatergoing buddy Bill persuaded me to see the 2006 revival. But the storyline still confused me—which revolution is the show about?  Which pining soprano is the female lead? Which cute kid was featured in the iconic poster?

Still, I was a fan of the Victor Hugo novel, which I read in 8th grade and soul locked with in the way that you can only do with a book when you are 13 years old. Hugo’s story, whose central characters are a man imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his family and a woman forced into prostitution to support her child, is a combination of agitprop and melodrama that aims directly at middlebrows like me. 

Some highbrow critics called the book sentimental when it first came out in 1862 but it was an instant bestseller across the European continent and in America too. And its popularity with the masses has never waned. Wikipedia lists some 60 movie versions, including one in 1897 by the film pioneering Lumière bothers. And the more reliable IMDB lists at least two dozen adaptations.

The Hugo novel is nearly 1,500 pages long in the Signet paperback edition and so something has always been lost in its stage and screen translations but the tale has never been clearer to me than in this new film version, directed by Tom Hooper, who gobbled up nearly all the Oscars two years ago for "The King’s Speech" and is clearly unafraid of earnest sentiment (click here to read a story on the making of the movie).

Hooper lets the viewer know from the very first scene that this movie is a musical. Indeed, most of it is sung threw, just as the stage version was. 

Much is being made of his decision to film the singing live on the set and add the full orchestrations later in the mixing (the sound guys are probably shoo-ins for Oscars). But guess what? It works. Singing has become the language of the film, as natural and emotional as spoken dialog (click here for a piece on how they got the actors up to vocal speed).

The songs—“I Dreamed A Dream,” “Who Am I,” “Do You Hear the People Sing,” “One Day More,” “On My Own,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” “Bring Him Home”—are, of course, familiar and they’re still stirring. Loud sniffles and muffled sobs could be heard throughout the movie theater.

Hooper’s also cast the film with the kind of big names who draw big audiences.  Hugh Jackman, plays Jean Valjean, the righteous thief who redeems himself but is pursued over two decades by the relentless Inspector Javert, played by a somewhat shaky Russell Crowe.  Although he occasionally moonlights as the lead singer in his own rock band, Crowe seems ill at ease in his numbers and lacks the chops to deliver them.

On the other hand, Jackman, who’s done award-winning work in musicals in both London and New York, sounds great and looks great too. I’m not the fan girl that my friends over at the Craptacular are but, OMG, he’s a gorgeous man.

The rest of the something-for-everyone cast includes the ever-versatile Anne Hathaway, affecting (and already an Oscar frontrunner) as the prostitute Fantine; TV’s Amanda Seyfried, spot-on as Valjean’s ward Cosette; Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bringing comic relief as the ludicrously larcenous inkeepers the Thénardiers; and the dreamy matinee idols Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit as leaders of the student revolutionaries who set off the story’s climax (click here to read the Craptacular interview with Tveit).

Plus, there’s even a cameo by Colm Wilkinson, the original stage musical's Jean Valjean, now playing the priest who puts the thief on the right path to redemption.

They’re all good. 

The movie itself is still more a series of tableaux than a continuous narrative.  And the background scenery is awful.  It’s muddy in that way that bad CGI is when it’s trying to mask its mistakes. 

But none of this matters. 

The audience at my Upper West Side movie house was largely rapt, although a few people did sneak out before the 2 hour and 43 minutes film ended.  Among them was one mother who hurried her tiny daughter up the aisle as a desperate Fantine was about to give up her final bit of honor. 

So, let the critics carp.  There is a resonant connection between the poor and oppressed in 19th century France and those of us in the 21st century who are about to be poorer and more oppressed as our financial and political leaders keep leading us over fiscal cliffs.   

And if we in the 99% want to shed a few tears and grab hold of a little uplift (both of which "Les Misérables" unabashedly provides) that’s absolutely fine with me.


theplaybillcollector said...

This was a great review! In the preview Anne Hathoway seemed off-pitch and I was very nervous to see her. I thought she did a wonderful job in the movie and her song brought tears to my eyes. Hugh Jackman did an incredible job but pairing him with Russell Crowe was painful to watch. I wish Helena and Sasha's parts were funnier. It is the only comic relief you get in the entire show so it was a bit disappointing that they were more serious. Also, their accents were all over the place. Although there were things I would have changed, it was an all over great movie!

Christine said...

I loved the movie. Being that I've seen the show in New York many a times, I was truly afraid something would be lost in translation. Sure some elements were dropped, but the core of the show held true. I loved how they brought Colm Wilkinson in, and how he was there at the end of the movie.

I, too, read the novel, and latched onto it. It will forever be on my bedside table. I loved how Hooper brought elements from the novel in.

Ive often said that the overture of the show is my "favorite" part, because I know I'm about to witness something amazing, and thats when the butterflies come, so I was overjoyed to hear the overture. I had some minimal issues in terms of cutting songs, and Russell Crowe (not minimal), the movie brought me back to the Broadhurst, and that feeling I got the first time I saw the show, and the first time I read the novel.

Then during the epilogue, well that was perfection.