Breaking Into Song

I’m not a big fan of musicals; never have been.  My mom used to watch movie musicals like the sound of music and seven brides for seven brothers and I would vacate the premises, taking GI Joe on a mission or perhaps riding my bike, reading my comics or anything other than enduring the film characters breaking into song in situations where singing seemed inappropriate in the plotline.  I just couldn’t understand why they felt the need to sing.  Then the movie musical suffered a setback in the Hollywood box office and there were almost no musicals for some time and all was right with the world.
Now, perhaps it is my more mature tastes, perhaps it is a broadening of my horizons, but I can tolerate musicals a lot more than when I was young.  Tolerate, mind you, not seek out.  Even so, I can say with some degree of confidence that the movie musical will enjoy a renaissance if Les Miserables is any indication.
The film is just the latest in a line of adaptations of Victor Hugo’s literary classic of romance and redemption set in post-revolutionary France, but it is the first one to bring the stage ethic to the big screen.  Just as stage actors have to sing as they act, the film’s dialogue is almost entirely sung and done so by the actors live during filming in one take rather than dubbed in during post production.  This is the secret of the movie’s success.
None of the cast’s singing was dubbed.  From Jean Valjean’s soul-searching acceptance of the monsignor’s gifts to Fantine’s soul-rending frustration at her descent to Javert’s soul-twisting conflict between his ethics and morals, the cast acts as they sing.  This really makes the moment more tangible.  It draws the viewer into the emotion of the scene far more than simply acting could and far more than if the song was dubbed in after filming.
The intimacy of the experience is augmented by the cinematography, wherein the director brings the camera right into the scene, filling the frame with the actor’s faces as they wrestle with the issues bringing out the songs. 
Aside from these techniques, the film offers a technical realism that is rarely seen in period pieces.  The makeup, sets and costumes are period accurate and at times, disturbing, such as Fantine selling her teeth and Valjean’s escape in the sewers of Paris.
Anne Hathaway turns in an Oscar-worthy performance, showcasing her acting and singing talents like no other role in which I have seen her.  Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so agonized that it would bring tears to a statue.  The one problem is that despite that fact that her role is pivotal to the plot, she doesn’t have a lot of screen time.  In fact, the prime screen real estate is necessarily hogged by Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean and Russel Crowe’s Javert.  Of course, they both use their time well and turn in fantastic performances as well.  I imagined that Jackman could sing, though I don’t think I have ever heard him before.  But the big surprise was Crowe.  He not only can carry a tune, he can do it with one hand.  While he probably won’t get an album deal out of this, he did the production proud.
I thought I would have difficulty comparing this film to the 1998 production with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush, especially since that version was not a musical and, as I said earlier, I don’t much like musicals.  However, having seen them both, while they are both excellent, for raw emotion and intimacy with the characters the latest version wins hands down.
If Hollywood can reproduce this level of performance in future efforts, the movie musical may yet make a comeback.


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