Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Les Miserables the Movie, Part Two: But Can They Sing?!

While the cast was slowly being assembled, Mackintosh and company -- although at this point, I think it's more accurate to say Hooper and company -- were working behind the scenes to develop something truly special.  The first hint of what was to come came from Hugh Jackman, who went to London for four weeks in the fall of 2011 so that Hooper could conduct some tests, including for 3D.  Jackman came away stating that he was "really pumped about doing this," something that he would repeat over Twitter shortly before movie rehearsals started.  He also mentioned that he hoped the singing would be performed live, as it allowed for a more spontaneous performance.  Jackman recalled having to lip-sync through a video for Oklahoma and hating it.

Live singing?  I did not realize it at the time, but that was something of a rarity.  Most of the time, actors in movie musicals record the entire soundtrack before filming the movie.  They then mime along to playback while performing their scenes.  I will confess that while sometimes, it is very obvious when the actors are just lip-syncing, usually I can't tell the difference.  Many fans dismissed the idea of live singing, claiming that it was too risky for such a massive production as Les Miz.  How would the actors possibly be able to maintain their voices for take after take?  And yet, an article about Sasha Baron Cohen stated that this was exactly what Les Miz intended to do.

So with that in mind, Les Miz entered the February 2012 rehearsal period with quite a tall order.  The actors would need to nail down their roles in rehearsal before entering a very tight three-month shooting schedule.  The movie would then be rushed to post production so that it could be finished by December of the same year.  That meant that, despite the use of ground-breaking techniques, there was no room for error.  One actor losing his or her voice could set back production for days or weeks.

Casting seemed to last right up to the very last minute.  The role of Gavroche was not even cast until after production had started.  Costumes, sets, extras... everything seemed to happen in a whirl.  And yet by late June, only a week behind schedule, production wrapped.

What were the results?  Obviously we won't really know until we see the finished product in December.  However, there is enough footage out there that we can at least hazard a few guesses.  First, let's consider:

The Cast

Hugh Jackman: Many thought he should be Javert, but apart from his natural baritone, I can't really understand why.  Jackman is usually in protagonist underdog roles.  His default persona seems to be sunny and charismatic, yet he is also capable of being dark, giving Valjean the edge that he needs.  Too often, actors in the Valjean role make him too nice, seeming to forget that he was in prison for 19 years and has been hunted for many years since.  Jackman has a long history of starring in musical theatre, including a one-man Broadway show prior to Les Miz rehearsals, and supposedly has a voice to kill for.  I'll confess that from what I've heard, his singing voice reminds me a little too much of Drew Sarich, a Broadway actor who starred in Les Miz at varying times as Valjean, Javert, Enjolras, and Grantaire.  I'm not exactly a fan of Drew Sarich.  However, I'm sure Jackman will impress me on the whole, and I can't imagine a better person for the role.

Unlike this Victorian depiction, there will be no 
mutton chops or top hat for Russell Crowe's Javert.
Russell Crowe: The bigger question mark is Crowe.  So far, no clips of his singing in Les Miz have been released, and past clips of him singing left many people underwhelmed.  Still, Crowe used to sing in a rock band and had a role in the Rocky Horror Picture Show musical.  There were reports that he hired a singing coach and spent many long hours getting into vocal shape.  While most of the effusive praise of singing has been reserved for Hugh Jackman, some people have praised Crowe's singing as well.  Besides concerns about Crowe's voice, some may question whether he has the right "look" for Javert.  Stills and footage have shown that his look will be very different from the one we usually associate with the character.  Since I'm sure the costume designers have done their homework, Crowe's look is almost certainly accurate for the time period.  It just takes some getting used to.  Furthermore, Crowe's acting ability should more than make up for any vocal shortcomings.

Anne Hathaway: I knew her primarily from The Devil Wears Prada and thus was uncertain whether she could channel the anguish central to Fantine's character.  Those who saw Rachel Getting Married swore that she could, and so far, from the film's lone trailer, it appears that she can.  Based on Hathaway's performance while hosting the Academy Awards, I knew that she could sing.  Hooper and company were apparently moved to tears by her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream... so much so, that they put unvarnished segments of it right in the first trailer.  So for those who had never seen Les Miserables, this was their first exposure to the musical.  Gutsy move.  Hathaway's vulnerable version clearly shows that she can sing, but is also much quieter and shakier -- by design -- than some of the more renowned versions.  It did not impress some people, but others were clearly moved.  Overall, I am okay with Hathaway as Fantine.  She wasn't my first choice -- I was more interested in Amy Adams or an unknown -- but I suspect she will end up giving one of the best performances, one that will resonate long after her character has left the screen.

Eddie Redmayne: I was quite excited about this choice when it was first announced.  Redmayne has a very distinctive look that is not for everyone, but one that I find rather attractive.  He is odd-looking, but it just works somehow.  What is more, he has incredible charisma, as shown by this scene in Tess of the D'Urbervilles where Angel Clare carries the women across the lake.  The only question mark about him was whether he could sing.  There was little evidence, apart from a clip of him singing "Ave Maria" in the Eton College Choir.  Based on that alone, holy shit, yes he could.  A brief clip of him singing "A Heart Full of Love" just confirms it.  I think Redmayne will give the surprise standout performance as Marius, maybe even be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

Amanda Seyfried: She presents some big question marks, but not so many since clips of her as Cosette were released.  Since hers was the only role that was opened up to sopranos in the U.K. and the U.S., I think it is safe to say that Hooper and company had some question marks as well.  That is nothing against Seyfried specifically -- it merely speaks to how vocally demanding the role of adult Cosette is, and how important it was for Hooper and company to Get Her Right.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the most unfortunate aspects of the musical is that it turns Cosette into a dowdy school marm with an "old person's" voice.  Not only does adult Cosette have a negligible role, but she is also constantly upstaged by Eponine, daughter of the people who abused her for five years!  Hooper and company seemed to remember that adult Cosette was, after all, the grown up version of the fragile little girl whom Valjean found in the woods.  She should be appealing -- to Valjean, to Marius, to us.  That is where I think the production did well by choosing Seyfried.  In pictures and clips, she just looks so gosh darn cute, and she and Eddie look adorable together.  With her in the role, it should make sense to the audience why Marius was attracted to her, enough so that it made him blind to Eponine.  Furthermore, from having watched her on Big Love, I know that Seyfried can provide the graven wise-beyond-her-years look of a girl troubled by family secrets, which is necessary for Cosette in "In My Life."  As for Seyfried's singing, she might not be the best Cosette ever, but in the clips, she doesn't sound bad.  She just might turn out okay.

Aaron Tveit: Enjolras is one of my favorite roles, and to me, Michael Maguire will forever be the standard bearer.  Yet while Tveit's voice is a little lighter than a traditional Enjolras voice, everything else about Tveit works for the role.  Good-looking, charismatic, determined.  Oh yes, this guy could convince people to die with him on a barricade.  I should also add that in learning more about him, I became a fan of his breakout musical, Next to Normal.  Tveit can sing very well and is highly physical and dynamic.  I haven't seen many clips of him, but from what I have seen, he seems to carry himself quite well.

Samantha Barks: I'll admit that I was hoping Hooper would cast an Eponine who was charismatic, but not overly attractive.  That was why the idea of Taylor Swift in the role did not completely repel me.  However, Barks was a solid choice for a number of reasons.  First, there is no question that she can sing.  Second, she has acted the role, so despite it being her first movie role, she already has a degree of comfort and familiarity.  Third, from what we've seen, Barks has a natural appeal that comes through on screen.  Yet at the same time, she is not so appealing that she outshines Seyfried, making it ridiculous that Marius would choose Cosette over Eponine.  At least, I don't think so.  Her onscreen performance might blow us all away.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen: I'm sure they'll be great as the Thenardiers, though aside from a crude bootleg of a trailer released in Japan, we haven't seen any evidence of how they look or sound.  Yet in all likelihood, Bonham Carter will be able to pull off hilarious and terrifying with a mere whisper, while Baron Cohen will be effectively sleezy and dark as Thenardier.

The Production

Before hearing any news about the movie production, I had a wish list containing just a few items.  One was that the musical should be gritty.  The book was gritty, so a movie with soft lighting and gloss would be a mistake.  Another was that the musical should feel authentic.  Hunger, death, and blood should be right there on the screen.  The actors should sound shattered if their characters were supposed to feel shattered.  Finally, Valjean should not just be a nice old man, but actually be somewhat edgy and dangerous.

So how did the production do?  So far, evidence suggests that the steps Hooper and company took will satisfy my expectations and then some.  First, regarding "edgy" Valjean: as noted above, Hugh Jackman will give Valjean the edge that he needs, though much will depend upon whether he decides to simply play the role as a "nice guy."

Next, it definitely seems as though Hooper strove for authentic over "pretty."  Anne Hathaway's singing in the trailer is typical, but also, as you can see in the First Look (below), Hugh Jackman sang different versions of familiar songs, with one sounding slow and contemplative.  Hooper has said that one benefit to live singing is that the actors can sing as if the words are just occurring to them.  Also authentic was the weight loss both Jackman and Hathaway had to undergo, each of which was extreme in its own way.  Jackman lost a dramatic amount of weight in order to achieve the look of a starved occupant of a prison camp.  Fortunately, after the early scenes, he was able to go back to regular eating.  Hathaway lost 16 pounds during filming, to go from normal Fantine to starved-and-dying Fantine.  Both actors' situations remind me a little too much of Christian Bale's, whose starved look in The Machinist served as an example -- maybe the ultimate example -- of an actor suffering for his craft.      

Finally, oh yes, there is gritty.  One typical example: for street scenes outside of the Thenardiers' inn, Hooper arranged for horse dung to be scattered about for the sake of realism.  Then there were the tweets about the "Barricade Boys" getting covered in blood and grime before every take, tweets about extended battle scenes, photos of prisoner Valjean with a bloody shaved head, footage of prisoners singing "look down" while pulling ropes in waist deep water, and so on.  I have no doubt we'll actually get to see Gavroche die in the movie, as opposed to having it hidden from us as in the 25th Anniversary version.

Most importantly, Hooper and company seemed to try to incorporate as much material from the novel as possible.  Details like the Napoleon elephant, pictured in the previous post, were included.  An entire song devoted to an important passage in the book -- Valjean's growing attachment to Cosette, barely touched upon in the stage version -- was added.  There are rumors that Enjolras and Grantaire will die the way they did in the book, rather than how they do in the musical.  Apparently it is not enough for Hooper to simply make a good-to-excellent movie of the musical; he also wants a movie that captures the spirit of the novel.  I think that the stage version always did a good job capturing the essence of the novel, and the movie seems poised to do even better.

Any dislikes I have about the production are minimal and based on very limited footage.  A lot of outside shots seem to have a grayish-blue hue, which can get tedious after a while.  "Paris" during the "Look Down" scenes doesn't look as crowded or as squalid as I always pictured it.  I'm not sure make-up did a good enough job aging Valjean and Javert nearly 20 years throughout the movie.  "Old" Valjean's hair makes me think of Gene Wilder.  It feels strange to me that some of Valjean's songs have been lowered to suit Jackman's vocal range; I hope that's not the case for all of them.  Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried don't look as exuberant as I expected them to look in "A Heart Full of Love."  Do they sing through that fence the whole time?  Finally, not sure how it will work to have "On My Own" moved to a different point in the musical.

But these are quibbles.  Otherwise, I am eagerly awaiting what Hooper and company have to show us.  What do you think?



  1. When I first heard Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe would be in LM, I immediately thought of Crowe as Valjean, chiefly because he's big and a little bovine, which seemed to be the way Valjean was pictured in the book. As for Jackman, I pictured him as Javert chiefly because I'd seen him before with mutton-chop whiskers. :-) I've seen Jackman's "Oklahoma" so I know he can sing, but Crowe frightens me. He seems to have a pleasant voice but Javert is not a simply "pleasant" voice. If Javert's voice was a car it would be a Jaguar, full of power and fury, and I don't know if Crowe can do that. I've wanted to see LM as a movie since I first discovered it nearly 20 years ago, but I'm scared silly that it will be like ALW's POTO, which I'd also wanted as a movie until they did it. (Poor Gerard Butler, I wanted to like him but his singing is somewhere between Frank Sinatra and Mickey Rooney.) I've seen the musical about a dozen times in the last 19 years. Visually the film's previews have been stunning, but I am worried about a great many things. I'm pretty much holding my breath for Christmas, and this time not for the traditional reason.

    1. Russell Crowe does seem like the physical heir to Colm Wilkinson... if he had a classically trained tenor voice, he probably would have been a shoe-in as Valjean. ;) I've had a little trouble adjusting to Crowe's voice, and have come to realize that it is because unlike the rest of the cast (from what little we've seen), he actually sings it out the way you would on the stage. Crowe's approach would probably be more typical if they had pre-recorded the tracks than the talk-sing approach Jackman uses.

      Gerard Butler was just miscast on every level for Phantom. I understand they wanted to go in a different direction ("He's Heathcliffe! The ugliness is all in his mind, don't you see?"), but they did nothing to alter the lyrics or the story to reflect that.