Either you are in or you are out when it comes to musicals. Freely entering a world where people spontaneously burst into song while breaking into impeccably choreographed dance numbers makes it an art form that requires some of the heaviest lifting from your “suspension of disbelief” muscles.
And even if you are able to get behind musicals, what is forgivable, and in the best cases magical on stage, hardly ever translates well to the screen. This is why when someone is talking about a great movie musical they are usually talking about something that features animated forest creatures or a film that predates 1960.
Now, I know you can name some great movie musicals from the past 50 years, but these exceptions are so few and far between that they only prove the rule.
I say all this to say how exciting it is to have a sighting of one of the rarest of beasts, a great movie musical in the form of “Les Miserables.”
Now, look, if you’re one of those people who are out on musicals, “Les Miz” is not going to change your mind. Feel free to just keep right on going, no hard feelings. Look, “Django Unchained” is playing right next door, check it out. It’s awesome.
As for the rest of us, “Les Miserables” is one of the few movie musicals you will ever see that matches (and in some cases surpasses) what you would experience on the stage. The reason it succeeds where so many like it have failed has to do with the unique qualities of the musical itself.
First of all, most musicals aren’t based on 19th-century French literature, and for good reason. Victor Hugo’s sprawling, the epic novel is as big and fat a downer as the title suggests and his saga of convict-turned-do-gooder Jean Valjean has been adapted to the big screen many times before (including the somewhat recent and very solid 1998 version starring Liam Neeson).
The musical takes this source material and makes it operatic, but unlike on stage (where 30 years after its inception it remains one of the most popular musicals in the world), the movie version is able to take some particular aspects of “Les Miz” and turn them up to 11 on the screen.
It is important to consider that no matter how good your stagehands are, you can’t squeeze the scope and the squalor of 1800s France into a theater. Director Tom Hooper (who I’m sure is still hung-over from Oscar night 2010, where he cleaned up with “The King’s Speech”) is able to take us back in time and let us soak in the rolling French countryside, the grimy Parisian streets and the mass of humanity that makes up the story.
Hooper then went and cast the holy hell out of this movie. Hugh Jackman (Wolverine has some serious Broadway bona fides) nails the lead role of Valjean, Russel Crowe, as Valjean’s pursuer Javert, proves he can carry a tune and be more than a match for Jackman. Then there’s Amanda Seyfried as Valjean’s lovely ward Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as Cosette’s love interest Marius and newcomer Samantha Barks in a star-making turn as heartbroken street urchin Eponine.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter also turn in expectedly fine work as the comic relief Thenardiers.
Taking this great cast and the musical’s exceptionally emotionally powerful songs, Hooper places the camera right in his actor’s faces; thus obliterating the distance between the stage and the audience while giving his cast the ability to emphasize the emotion of the music in a way we’ve never seen before.
Hooper also had his cast sing the music live on set as opposed to recording the soundtrack and then lip-synching the songs later. This gave the actors freedom to match their performance with the vocals, a creative choice that pays great dividends.
Anne Hathaway just might win the Best Supporting Actress nomination for the minor role of Cosette’s mother, Fantine, thanks to her devastating performance of a single song, the musical’s signature number “I Dreamed a Dream.”
“Les Miserables” opens on Christmas Day and is the best present you musical lovers have gotten in a long, long time, and that includes the lock of Stephen Sondheim’s hair you bought for yourself on EBay.
“Les Miserables” is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence, and thematic elements.