SOUND OFF: LES MISERABLES - On Film, On Its Own
December 25, 2012 marks the biggest and best day of the year for many Broadway babies around the world, but the anticipatory fervor has little to do with the man with the beard in red and white from the North Pole - you see, the guy in question in this equation is more apt to be seen in red and black and his origins are decidedly a bit more Gallic than Jolly Old St. Nick. The man whom I speak of is, of course, Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Victor Hugo's spellbinding 1862 historical epic LES MISERABLES, a novel which was subsequently adapted into a 1980 concert spectacular and ultimately a 1985 full-fledged stage musical, painstakingly developed through the shepherding of uber producer Cameron Mackintosh, alongside the talents responsible for breathing song into the story - original French composer/lyricist team Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil (along with Jean-Marc Natel), to whom Mackintosh added English lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (and also contributor James Fenton). Through a special partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company, LES MISERABLES: THE MUSICAL premiered at the Barbican Theatre in the West End soon thereafter under the direction of Trevor Nunn and John Caird and opened to largely negative reviews, albeit ecstatic, ebullient audiences. Broadway was next, where it went on to win Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor, Best Featured Actress & Actor and even more (eight total). LES MISERABLES onstage was a hit like few others from then on and the rest, ze say, is history - or, in this case, l'histoire.
Yet, on Christmas Day, the next step in the evolution of the worldwide phenomenon commonly and colloquially known as LES MIZ will occur - just days after the Mayan-predicted end of days, no less - and the movie musical adaptation of the stage show will finally become a reality, featuring an all-star cast comprised of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, among others. The time has come to hear the people sing onscreen at long, long last. But, first, how is the film?
While many MIZ-heads may have assumed the film adaptation of their beloved musical would never actually come to fruition in their lifetimes, here it really is, all too soon available for all to see - lo, more than twenty years after it was first announced to hit the screen, byway of an official promo ad in a tour souvenir program going as far back as the late-late-1980s. I was fortunate enough to catch an advance screening of LES MISERABLES during the dawning days of December and many small character moments and details, full musical sequences and the overall grandiloquent grandiosity of it all has filled me with a special brand of inexpressible, enrapturing ecstasy heretofore never experienced, coming mostly as a direct result, no doubt, of the sheer force of power the film exacts in its relentless, barreling, blazingly bravado-bedecked style - a style, I can firmly say, is completely alone in all of movie history. LES MISERABLES on film is a lot of things, but, first and foremost, it is that which it is unlike that makes it most remarkable of all; that is: it is unlike any movie musical ever made. And, it is a masterpiece.
Bring Us Home
"If I die, let me die / Let him live," sings Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) at one of the most pivotal dramatic moments in the mostly sung-through and devotedly faithful movie musical adaptation of the world's second most successful musical of all time, LES MISERABLES. The song, "Bring Him Home", is a prayer to God - a request - to grant grace upon a boy's kind soul and let him live to fight another day and see another dawn, somehow, someway - and, one could quite justifiably say that it is the same sort of passionate plea to the heavens that that character oh-so emotively and compellingly emits in the capable hands and steely cords of Jackman's Jean Valjean that many a fan of LES MISERABLES the stage musical themselves have felt and perhaps even have uttered in regards to a potential movie version someday. Indeed, all we have ever wanted was the perfect screen version of LES MISERABLES, right? That's all. We yearn for a big-bodied, full-out, singing-in-the-sewars movie musical rife with the vigorous excitement and epically emotionally expressive elements afforded to the stage adaptation as it exists, just blown up and expertly, brilliantly designed for film. Is all of that just too much to ask? Apparently not.
Well, while Tom Hooper's incredibly daring and impossibly authentically LES MIZ-ian film adaptation of the musical may not be precisely that - perfect - for many die-hard fans seeking a carbon copy of the stage show or perhaps a more accurate rendering of the novel - or even something generally resembling the tried and true tropes of the Trevor Nunn/John Caird original - what Hooper, Mackintosh and the commendable cast and crew have created is the perfect LES MISERABLES movie musical existing on its own terms. Yes, it is 90% identical to the stage show (with one new song, the sensitive "Suddenly") - but, it feels different. Much different. A world away, actually. It feels fresh and new and somehow also like it has always existed - a contradiction in terms, no doubt, but there it is. This is not a replica of the stage show, but it is entirely true to it in every way.
Now, to get down to the nuts and bolts and predictions that run rampant and have become all too de rigeur this time of year - will it work for all film fans? Truth be told, probably not all of them - early reviews have been wildly inconsistent and critics have never taken kindly to the musical property, so that is a futile barometer to consider anyway; yet, Fandango has reported the film is the best-selling Christmas event ever in the history of advanced tickets, so it seems that once again the public will be the ones to decide its fate. Furthermore, will the film work for all theatre fans? Maybe not - the nature of the in-the-moment live singing makes for more sheer visceral emotional believability from the actors while performing musical material than any movie musical in my memory, and, as a result, the performers commit portrayals of their rich roles simultaneously theatrical and cinematic, but that does not neccessarily mean it always sounds pretty. The audio authenticity reflects life, in all its manifestations and variations - poor, pretty, perfect; and, everything in between. After all, as many of us experience daily, life during a war and a depression is far from pretty - especially as reflected in this zeitgeist-targeted and modern metaphor-hitting story.
Case in point: Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed A Dream". Is this the most singularly astonishing movie musical moment of the new era, which was begun roughly ten years ago with MOULIN ROUGE and CHICAGO and followed up with everything from RENT to HAIRSPRAY to DREAMGIRLS to ROCK OF AGES since? Well, Miss Hathaway certainly gives Jennifer Hudson a run for Effie's payola. But, why even compare the two? Hathaway is masterful and instantly conjurs pure movie musical magic from out of thin, thin air and knocks it all clear out of the park. Hugh Jackman is, in a word, titanic as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe is aptly formidable with a frosty edge as Javert. Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne make major marks as Cossette and Marius - no small feat, actually - but Aaron Tveit is undeniably the standout of all the young cast members, embodying a ravishingly sung, rousing and youthful Enjorlas. Additionally, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide just the right comic touch as les Thenardiers in their big moments to lighten the admittedly black-as-night proceedings. So, too, does Samantha Barks as Eponine emphatically enliven the second half of the enterprise with her short-lived but note-perfect, sensationally essayed portrayal of her role. Hooper's claustrophobic, in-their-face close-up filming style for much of the singing, especially when married with the astoundingly gritty and shockingly authentic costume, scene and sound design, collectively creates an anomalously affecting and nearly too-real atmosphere. It hits you in the gut and it is impossible to relate the sheer force that LES MISERABLES is able to have upon you if you give yourself over to it completely and willingly for 150 minutes or so - it is a steam train in how hard it plosively hits you and a scalpel in how delicately it can cut to so very many parts of the heart in an instant. Dark, yes - but that makes the hope and light all the whiter and purer. There is a whole heaven of a lot of redemption and glory by the final reel to go with the hellish blood, guts, gore and depression that abounds.
Resolutely, Tom Hooper's LES MISERABLES is unlike any movie musical ever before, but, also, it magnifies the best aspects of both theatre and film at their best, too - the many one-shot and minimally-covered songs display the actors nakedly alone in their element, unadorned and unencumbered by elaborate lighting and sets and choreography all too often seen onstage and onscreen, to say nothing of camera trickery and flash-cut editing so prevalent in many modern movie musicals. The songs are allowed to shine and the emotion allowed to flow. And flow. On that note, LES MISERABLES is more or less the anti-CHICAGO insofar as razzle dazzle and Broadway razzmatazz go - but, good God, what a trade-off! Yes, LES MIZ is at the opposite end of the spectrum from CHICAGO in almost every way but one, that is: it, too, invents its own film language and exists as its own idiosyncratic film animal in the vast zoo of the great cinematic pantheon.
So, what kind of bird or beast is LES MISERABLES exactly? A lion. A dove. A whale.
And, most of all, a man.
How to put one of the lengthiest and most inherently theatrically designed, enacted and acted stage spectacles of the 1980s mega-musical era up on the big screen and make it feel immediate, authentic and really hit home for a 2012 movie-going audience? That was the gambit and Mackintosh and Hooper took the challenge on with apparent relish and have managed to not only hit a home run, but reinvent the game itself in the process. A true coup.
An epic achievement like virtually no other, do not miss LES MISERABLES this Christmas - it is as good as movie musicals get and the next step towards the future for the form. It is perhaps the most important film in the progression of the movie musical genre since CHICAGO, if not all the way back to 1979's ALL THAT JAZZ more than twenty years before it.
In a world of GLEE, SMASH, THE VOICE and so much performance-based entertainment on view, LES MISERABLES stands alone... all on its own.