Monday, December 31, 2012

Les Misérables As The Great Film Musical

One of the most important things that makes a performance by children enjoyable and engaging is their energy. You can forgive a bunch of third graders if they mess up a line here or there during a school play, but if they have good energy, the play can still work.

It is the same energy, that translates into the commitment and the dramatic determination that makes Les Mirables one the best film musicals of all time. There is much to criticize about this film. Broadway purist are frustrated that Hollywood starts took over the lead parts. The plot is sometimes confusing (and humorously implausible) for people coming to this film without knowing the original stage musical or the book. And while there are some incredible dramatic moments there are some singing performances that seem stiff (i.e. Russel Crowe and well. . . Russel Crowe).

Many of these criticism can be applied to some of the greatest film musicals of all time like West Side Story, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady (at least Les Mirables didn't pull the "have an actor lip sing someone else's voice"). I'm not making these comparisons because I think musicals need to be given a pass or criticized on an easier scales than other films. I'm bringing up these older musicals to help reflect on the fact that the film version of a Broadway musical is a very different kind of film.

All of the great film musicals brought parts of the Broadway show to the screen that work on the silver screen and the parts that do not. The filmmakers attempt to balance the needs of the commercial audience with a desire to maintain musical integrity in a type of drama that has a very different grammar than film.

Les Mirables does a remarkable job of balancing all of these factors while doing things on screen that bring layers to the story that can't be done on the Broadway stage. There's the incredible sets that help tell the story, the innkeepers pick pocketing and the intimacy of the performances like Anne Hathaway's unforgettable performance of "I Dreamed A Dream."

No other medium but film could capture this performance in this way. Performing "I Dreamed A Dream" on stage is beautiful and powerful but there s a distance we have from the performer.

Lea Salonga is amazing, but try to imagine her performance this with an intense close-up on a large movie screen.  That's a very different artistic feat than what Hathaway attempts.  Throughout Hathaway's song, the camera frames her face reminiscent of Sinead O'Conner's video for "Nothing Compares 2 U." The previous scenes, the sets, the wardrobe and the make-up create the desperate plight and context for this song perfectly. Even before she starts "I Dreamed A Dream," we feel that we understand the tragedy but then the performance revels more emotional depth.

Everything you've heard about Hathaway's performance is true. It's raw, uncomfortably intimate and one of the greatest performances captured on film. Does the rest of the film hold up against it? No, there isn't another scene which is as powerful (except maybe for Samantha Bark's "On My Own") and many other scene get close. 

On future viewing of the Les Misérables, I will cringe as Hugh Jackman barely hits the notes for "Bring Him Home," and giggle as Javert once again does not realizes that he is meeting Jean Valjean.  Many great film have these kind of moments and almost all great film musicals do.  Those thing don't ruin this film because Les Misérable is a film that embraces what it is: a film version of Broadway show.

Many of the critics who have been criticizing this film seem to miss that point.  Instead of trying to be something that it's not, Les Misérables leans into the melodrama and embraces the spirit and grandeur that makes a film musical great. 

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