In Which I Overanalyze Les Miserables, the Film
The Oscars were last night, and Les Miserables came to a theatre near me just in the nick of time. Living in a small town like mine can be frustrating where the Academy Awards are concerned, because when you already don’t watch R-rated films, you don’t get to see many of the nominees. And then when your (very small)(non-stadium seating)(ONLY) local theatre decides that films like Lincoln and Les Miserables aren’t worth getting on opening week, well…you don’t get to see many good movies, and are often lost during the Oscars. Though it’s still fun to watch.
So, on Saturday night we went to see Les Miserables. You may remember a post I wrote way back in July in which, prompted by Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream in the trailer, I admitted to being a music snob.
Many of my friends didn’t agree with me about Anne’s performance, most often citing the (valid) reason that “Fantine has been through so much! She’s down-trodden, sick, and dying. How can she possibly sing well after all that she has experienced?”
To that I say, “Have you ever seen an opera?”
Two of opera’s most beloved heroines, Mimi (La Boheme) and Violetta (La Traviata), die of tuberculosis. And they are perfectly capable of singing very high notes beautifully seconds before they succumb to the illness. Because it’s an OPERA. People sing beautiful high notes in all kinds of down-trodden, sick, and dying situations in opera. Nobody would want to go see a Mimi who decided to portray her consumption realistically and actually sang like she was dying. That isn’t the point of opera.
But Les Miserables isn’t an opera, right?
The definitions of opera and musical theatre blur a little bit in the case of shows like Les Mis. Because everything is sung and there is no spoken dialogue actually written into the book, many people believe that Les Miserables is technically an opera. And if that were the only difference between opera and musical theatre, those people would be right.
But there are many other differences, which means that Les Miserables is actually musical theatre. We call it “sung-through” and it shares this category with shows like Rent, Miss Saigon, and Evita. (On the flip side, there are operas, like Mozart’s The Magic Flute, that contain spoken dialogue.)
Still, my issues with the movie lie in the fact that this is a musical that is entirely sung.
In theatre, there exists a threshold of verbalization. Basically, this means that the actor remains silent until the need to communicate via speech becomes so strong that the actor crosses that threshold and speaks. In opera and musical theatre, there is also a threshold of vocalization. This threshold is higher than the threshold of verbalization and means that an actor’s need to communicate through song must be stronger than the need to communicate through speech.*
“Music is what feelings sound like” is a popular quote that musicians (myself included) like to use to show how music allows us to feel more deeply, and to put some sort of tangibility to our emotions. If you are going to sing, you must be able to sing in such a way that the emotions can be understood through the music, and through the singing voice. It is not enough to just act the same way you would with spoken dialogue. It is an entirely different process.
The composer has already given the singer everything. Our job is to figure out why specific notes, dynamics, rhythms, etc. were written. Then we use that music, and our voices (which we have spent years learning how to use properly) to bring the emotions to life. But we have to have the ability to sing softly in order to make use of the composer’s direction to do so. We have to have the ability to change timbre, sing in tune (at one point during the movie the Maestro leaned over to me and whispered, “Does pitch matter in this show?”), crescendo, and so much more. If we do not have that ability–that technique–in place, we cannot truly cross the threshold of vocalization.
“When one wants to find a gesture, when you want to find how to act onstage, all you have to do is listen
to the music. The composer has already seen to that. If you take the
trouble to really listen with your Soul and with your Ears–and I say
‘Soul’ and ‘Ears’ because the Mind must work, but not too much also–you will find every gesture there.”
Ultimately, I felt that the actors in Les Miserables did not have the ability to cross the threshold of vocalization because they simply did not have a strong enough singing technique to do it. Instead, they used the acting skills that made them the big names that they are.
Anne Hathaway acted the crap out of Fantine. Her acting was superb. She deserved the Oscar last night, and I mean that. But, if she had had the singing chops to really become Fantine through song? To really show Fantine’s despair through the music and not just acting? Her performance would have been so much more than it already was. She has a nice enough voice, but her lack of breath support was enough to limit her ability to show emotion through singing in a big way.
Russell Crowe, another marvelous actor, would have made an amazing Javert in a version of Les Miserables where singing wasn’t required. As it was, he had to concentrate so much on his singing, that his acting suffered. I feel he did the opposite of what Anne Hathaway did, and didn’t even try to act the crap out of Javert. He just did his best to sing the notes and stay in tune (and he wasn’t always successful). Consequently, the suicide scene, which could have been so freaking amazing on film (did you SEE that bridge and that water?) fell short because Crowe was so staid in his singing. He couldn’t use his voice to show the emotion, and it felt like he was afraid to try.
Hugh Jackman did an admirable job, but I didn’t like his rendition of Bring Him Home. There was no subtlety of emotion in it, because the notes were too high for him and he he had to work too hard to sing them. It resulted in a pushed performance, in my opinion. (And what was up with the new song? Probably just a grab for an Oscar nomination, which was the end result. I was disappointed to have a new song added and one of my favorites–Little People–cut.)
Amanda Seyfreid, who was fine in Mamma Mia! because it wasn’t nearly as vocally demanding, simply shouldn’t have been given this role. Cosette is the operatic role in Les Miserables. It is high, and classically sung. Amanda did not have the breath technique to do it, and her vibrato was fast and Snow White-ish, and it detracted from the performance.
Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne, had similar issues, though he ended up creating his vibrato entirely in his neck and head. It was both distracting to watch and to hear, though I thought he had one of the nicer voices in the show, vibrato issues aside.
Samantha Barks, who played Eponine (how can I get a waist as tiny as hers?), did an honorable job as well. Eponine is a belt role, and while I would have liked to see more from her, she nailed the end of On My Own and I enjoyed her performance of A Little Fall of Rain.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were hilarious. It’s really too bad they couldn’t have sung the roles the way they were meant to be sung, because it would have been so much funnier.
The guys who played Enjolras and Grantaire (Marius’ friends) were very good singers with Broadway experience (and cute, too!–especially Enjolras). Because they had nothing holding them back musically, they were my favorite characters in the movie.
Besides Gavroche. Who is always my favorite character in this show. And the boy they had playing him did a superb job. The young Cosette was pretty darn good, too.
And let’s not forget the cameo appearance of the original Jean Valjean–Colm Wilkinson–as the Bishop. He’s gotten old, but it was lovely to see him in the movie.
All of that said, I enjoyed the movie. Really. The singing issues, which I am very aware would not bother the majority of the population, did not detract so much from the story that I couldn’t appreciate the amazing work that is Les Miserables. I cried. It is a wonderful and epic story of justice and mercy, hope and redemption, love and beauty.
It’s just that it could have been so much better if Hollywood didn’t think that singing is secondary to acting. That’s all.
And, no. I have no idea how I would have cast this show. That’s why that isn’t my job. My job, apparently, is only to write long blog posts about why the musical wasn’t all it could have been.
And if you felt it was your job to read this, I thank you.
*I learned about these thresholds from Dr. Matt Bean, who was a professor of mine at BYU. I took a class from him called “Acting for Singers” and it was one of the most amazing classes I have ever taken, even though fear was struck into my heart every time I crossed the threshold into the classroom (hardy har har). He wrote an article in the 2007 NATS Journal entitled “Why is Acting in Song so Different.” I love that article so much that I make all of my students read it and I talk about it way too much.
Exactly. This is what I would have written if I knew the words to say.
I am one of the sad saps who never actually got to see this performed live, but I read the book (all seventy billion pages of it) and listened to the London Broadway cast version of it about a bzillion times growing up.
I absolutely hated the show the first time I saw it. The music was just WRONG! I know what they were trying to achieve, I just think they should have chosen a different story to act/sing live. The music quality was embarrassing. And I, too was irritated at the new song and the cutting of the best ones.
Those kiddos were amazing.
BUT, I went again to humor my Handsome Prince, and LOVED it the second time. My expectations were so low musically, that I was able to finally notice the great acting and touching story.
Oye. There have to be some actors out there who can act and sing.
I must confess that I have not seen the movie yet, and the reason why I have not is because of every thing you just listed, though I could never have explained it as well as you just did.
I have seen it live. I've seen the PBS Broadcast of whichever London performance they show from time to time.
I am/was scared of what the movie would do to it.
I probably will see it eventually. And as I am not as musically knowledgeable and skilled as you are, I probably won't notice some of the things that you mentioned. But yes, you just summed up ALL the reasons I believe I DON'T want to see it.
I saw a preview of this, Redmayne and Sefriend were featured promenently, and just from the preview, for the reasons you listed I lost my desire to see the film. Everyone went on about how they sang it live. Perhaps they should have pre-recorded to get the right emotion, voice, etc. As for living in a small town. Our little 4 screen theater is on the B list when it comes to getting movies like this. Because they are so small and cannot have a film on the same screen for weeks on end, they get second and sometimes thrid dibs on what they can show. Les Mis was in our theater about 2 weeks.
I loved Enjolras—he is always my favorite: from HS productions to Capitol Theater. I thought Gavroche was awesome and Young Cosette made me not hate Castle on a Cloud which I always skip on the CD:)
I know the singing overall wasn't great—but I've been wanting this movie to happen for so long (long before Hollywood started to talk about it) that I determined to just be happy it was finally a movie and enjoy it. But I definitely enjoyed reading your review. It's nice to read reviews of people that understand what they're actually critiquing:)
I need to admit I haven't seen it either, yet.
I loved reading this post and learning about opera vs musical theatre. It is very interesting to me. I need to go see the movie soon.
This reminds me of a recent guest post I read on a very prominent blog… It was an emotionally gripping piece and was highly praised in the comments, but for me I could NOT get past the poor quality of writing. The pacing was bad. The structuring was awful. I completely admit things can still mean something if they aren't written well, but good writing certainly helps.
As for the movie, I'm not a trained musician, but Enjolras was my favorite too. I remember leaning over to my husband and pointing him out as one if the only ones that had the musical training for the kind of singing they were doing.
Having said that, I was actually underwhelmed with Eponine's performance. I thought her acting lacked expression and that her close ups were not as impressive as others on screen. I wondered if this was because she hasn't had as much screen acting experience?
And oh!! I almost forgot my other favorite was the Bishop… Because who doesn't love Colm Wilkinson? (While I believe Hugh Jackman did an admirable job, Colm will always be the Valjean I love the most.)
OH MY GOSH! Don't even get me started about my opinions on the horrendous singing in this movie. I went to it with the expectations that the singing would be sub-par because they sacrificed musical ability for star quality. But I was still soooo frustrated by the majority of the singing!! The voice teacher inside of me kept trying to analyze and fix their vocal issues so much that I simply could not suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy the movie or get wrapped up in it emotionally.
Get the frog out of Marius's tight throat! Please give Javert some confidence so that he appears moderately intimidating! Slow down Cosette's vibrato so she doesn't sound like a cross between a goat and Snow White! Jean Valjean was so hit and miss that I would get my hopes up for some good singing, just to have them dashed to pieces. I love Joel's comment about pitch mattering—it's not aeliatoric music, for heaven's sake. And PLEASE: MORE MORE MORE of ENJOLRAS!!
Still, Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" knocked my socks off. How she could sing and cry at the same time was beyond amazing.
But more than their vocal technique issues, the problems I had with the movie stemmed from the director's choices on how to film it and mix the sound. So many freaking close-up shots made me feel suffocated and begging to see at least shoulders or a torso from time to time. I mean, "A Little Fall of Rain" was so stilted and weird because you couldn't see if they were even touching or sitting close together. TOO MUCH CLOSE UP! And was I the only one who felt like I had to strain to hear the orchestral accompaniment? Sure it made the singing feel very clear and present, but I wanted more orchestra to support the voices.
I wanted to get lost in the story but I felt like these issues kept me at arm's length. Oh well.
Rachelle, I totally forgot to write about my frustration with the orchestration! It was weird how they cut out a lot of the texture, and opted for even just a Capella singing. Which of course then contributed to the pitch issues…
I've wondered what you would think of it. Based on your knowledge and background, I can imagine you actually cringing.
I agree the vocals were not stage quality, but overall, loved the film!
I have been anxiously awaiting your post! Thanks for your insights. I have to agree with most of what you said. I thought Anne Hathaway did a great job, though. Russell Crowe felt too stiff and stilted. I really wanted to love Hugh Jackman but didn't. His acting was great but singing wasn't. Marius was a bit annoying. Hands down Enjolres was the best all around performance. And Eponine was great. I loved the movie. It was great.
Laura, I'm glad someone sees it as I did. I have seen the stage version-Broadway- at least 6 times. While I loved the movie, because I love the story, I too felt the same about Anne Hathaway. She could not sing, and it really bugged me the entire time. Her acting was ok, but her lack of talent in the singing department really bothered me. Same with Russel Crowe. His singing was really pretty awful. I did like Hugh Jackman…but as you said, the new song? And cutting one of the best?- I knew that was bound to happen in the movie. Anyway- I liked your review. I haven't kept up on my singing since college, but I know enough about singing to recognize when someone can sing and someone can't. And you are right- the song was an expression of their emotions so it really should have been sung well 🙂 – OK- long enough but I agree with your review- although I'm not sure I wanted to see Anne get the Oscar….I feel like the singing was still just too lacking.. but I sure loved her dress!! -sharla
oh and if it makes you feel any better- we live in a very small town with a similiar theater 🙂 don't get to see the movies much unless we drive…
I still haven't seen it. Waiting for it to come out on video, I suppose. I have worried that I would hate it. I saw the musical when it was touring with the original cast and loved it, though it of course wasn't nearly as great as the book (unabridged, of course). I saw it again right after I got married when a local theater company performed it. I loved it, just not as much as the original cast. Which is why I worry I will hate the movie. And I am so happy to hear someone else debunk Anne Hathaway's reasons for not singing I Dreamed a Dream with as much passion as I expect Fantine to have in it. When upset and downtrodden, that is when the despair and sadness and anger explode, right? Just saying. Still, you have given me hope that I wont hate it, though I am sad that Little People was cut. That song is SO fun!
Oh, you can tell a real musician from a music lover. That would be you as compared to me. I loved, loved, loved the movie for exactly the reasons you didn't. We've seen touring stage versions of Les Miserables three times now. The one thing that has always bugged me is how gorgeous Fantine sounds while she is dying.
So, for me, someone with an untrained ear, but love of music and of movie magic – this was perfect. Finally! Someone told an amazing story in a lushly gorgeous visual way – with real acting. When Fantine was dying, she sounded like she was dying.
How interesting that we both enjoyed the movie, but looked at it so differently.
I just read the comments,and found them so interesting. This cracked me up! Get the frog out of Marius's tight throat! Please give Javert some confidence so that he appears moderately intimidating! Slow down Cosette's vibrato so she doesn't sound like a cross between a goat and Snow White! .
It's so funny the way we notice the things that matter to us. As I read the comments, I could totally recall the frog in Marius's throat, but I never noticed as I watched. My ear is untrained, but not my eye. I could tell you about the super cool camera angles, the use of a huge variety light sources, the amazing textiles, and the way those textiles were lit…