One of us. You will sing like one of us.
by Luke Goldstein
There is a certain amount of anxiety and trepidation going into any movie project. They cost ridiculous amounts of money, time and manpower to make and in the end you can never guarantee anyone will go see it. You might think some of that anxiety would disappear if you’re making a movie where the story is already wildly popular, giving you a built-in audience, like in the case of Les Miserables and the sixty-five million people who have already witnessed the magic of the stage version. You might think the nerves would lessen, but while some might dissipate approaching a project like this brings a whole new level of stress and hair-pulling mania.
Les Miserables is set in revolution-era France and follows an abnormally strong ex-convict named Jean Valjean. He tries valiantly to create a normal life for himself, but finds fate has different ideas for what lies ahead. His life becomes permanently intertwined with a broken woman and her precious daughter. Desperate to shield her from the horrors of life, Valjean raises her as his own, but finds he cannot outrun his own past, which threatens to take his new treasure down with him.
The most challenging part of adapting something like Les Miserables is the incredibly popular stage show is entirely sung, no dialogue at all, and it is over three hours long. So right away there needed to be some trimming and possibly some additional words put in to smooth over the transitions which work so wonderfully on a stage, but are terribly awkward on screen. On top of those edits, there were actually new songs and new lines added to old songs in order to tie the story together even more. A dangerous move for sure that could anger the purists who’ve seen the stage performance multiple times, but it pays off well for the main crowd.
When the movie was first announced I was mainly only interested because I am a fan of Anne Hathaway, who took on the role of Fantine, a role once played by her own mother. Yet in the preceding weeks before the release of the movie, an extended trailer-slash-infomercial came out in the theaters and showed one big gamble being taken by director Tom Hooper. Instead of recording the music, which was all sung by the actual actors, on a soundstage and having them lip sync it on set, he wanted to record all the vocals live on the set during shooting. No musical film had ever been shot this way before and he hoped it would lend a tenderness, emotional truthfulness to the scenes which wouldn’t be captured by overdubbing.
He was right.
Hathaway’s heart wrenching rendition of I Dreamed a Dream destroys the soul of anyone still breathing as they watch it, while Samantha Barks, playing Eponine, delivers a beautiful and poignant version of On My Own. These two songs would have been enough to label the movie powerful in its soundtrack, but every actor brought their all to it and gave dozens of other memorable performances, not only with their voices, but with their craft as well.
Who knows if Hooper’s gamble will set a new standard for how musicals will be made in the future.If it does, they will have to make sure to cast actors who can deliver, because not every ensemble will be as talented as this one.
Overall Les Miserables is a touching and moving experience, but admittedly for some it will seem draining. The constant music with very little spoken dialogue can stretch the minutes out in a way not totally enjoyed by the mainstream public, but for those operatic fans of sweeping arias and belted-out broadway numbers, this is a hefty helping of everything you want.