The Clash of the Film and Theater Mediums: Why “Les Miserables” Falls Flat

I went to a Christmas Day screening of Les Miserables. After writing about the lead up and seeing all the behind-the-scenes featurettes, I was excited to see how the amazing production design and the bold experiment of recording live singing would come together. I left the theater that night not totally satisfied but not totally let down either. After a few days of reflection and a little bit of emotional distance, I think I can derive a bit more rationale analysis on the film’s production approach and how it may have contributed to the uneven effect of the film.

First off, I must say Les Miserables is not my favorite musical. It’s in my top 10 or so stage musical works, but I’ve never been die-hard fan like some of the folks I know in theater circles. This fanbase, devoted and groomed from countless professional and amateur productions, is both a blessing and a curse. Knowing every nuance of the story and music means there’s little left for surprise – every detail of production is go to be scrutinized by the fans who have all imagined in their own mind’s eye how it ought to look.

Now a lot has been written about casting choices. With the realities of what it takes to get a multi-million dollar film musical made, trading celebrity star power for singing chops is a unavoidable compromise. Would I love to see leading Broadway voices chewing up the score with a lavish cinematic production? Of course, but it’s economically unfeasible. Besides, there’s already a well loved “Great Performances” DVD of the show out there if you really need to indulge in some world class vocal performances.

Still, it’s not say that stars of the film adaptation Les Miserables can’t hold their own musically. In listening to the soundtrack in preparation of writing this review, the vocal performances seem to be on par or better with every other movie musical made in the modern era. Even Russell Crowe’s much maligned Javert works inside it’s own world. It lacks the brash bold baritone that we’ve grown accustomed to in the cast recordings but it’s not unlistenable.

But what brings down the film is a much deeper issue. This is a battle that comes down to the clash of two art forms: live theater and film – the actor’s medium and the director’s medium.

Featurette discussing Live Singing:

Most film musicals and music videos are lip synced to pre-recorded music. The actors record their voices to music before production begins – polishing their musical product in the studio. On set, they have to sing along and mimic their voice performance – a sort of reverse-ADR. And anyone familiar with ADR knows how incredibly time consuming it is to create seemless ADR performances. It’s very difficult to pull off a perfect lip sync, but totally impossible.

Tom Hooper’s gambit in Les Miserables was to have the actors sing live on set. Their voices could fluctuate in tempo depending on their performances and a full orchestra would be added in post production to follow along. This sounds like a no-brainer but it’s fraught with technical challenges of recording clean sound and it forces the filmmakers into editorial compromises that wouldn’t exist if lip synced.

There are three scenes where Les Miserables fully takes off for me: Anne Hathaway’s ”I Dreamed A Dream”, Samantha Barks’ “On My Own” and the Finale. The first two songs listed are done in one long uninterrupted take led by two female stars that have some serious singing chops (Samantha Barks spent a few years playing that very part on the West End). The finale is done in course of a few clean (no shakey cam) long takes.

If you want to showcase an actor’s performance, to go through all that trouble of recording live on stage, having the long take is the way to do it. But difficulties arise as both the performer and the crew have to nail their performance at the same time. Because of the demands of the scene (especially when singing live) the actor has only so many takes in them before fatigue sets in. And there is no room for technical errors like being out of focus (which there is a lot of through out the movie). Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” was a simpler scene for the focus puller as she sat in one spot for her performance. But Hugh Jackman’s “Valjean Soliloquy” suffers from drifting in and out of focus as he paces to and away from the camera – an issue that may not bother people so much if they watch it on a television but is undeniable on the big screen.

Where Les Miserable really misses the mark is whenever the camera isn’t allowed to just roll. The film suffers from some very bad cutting in some of the ensemble pieces. I can’t be entirely sure if this was just sloppiness or due to the editorial compromises that had to be made because of the live singing. For instance, in “Lovely Ladies”, there’s a wide shot that cuts just before a quick pan – it looks more like a mistake than an intentional cut.

But the biggest failure has to be the “Master of the House” sequence. I like Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter and I think they are actually well cast in those roles. Cohen dons a French accent which is a breath of fresh air as every cast recording and amateur production reverts to a cockney accent (isn’t this suppose to take place France?). The purpose of “Master of the House” is comic relief in a physical form as the Thenardiers relieve their customers of their money. Unfortunately with the fast cutting, you could make zero sense of the choreography. The audience in my screening sat mostly silent as many of the sight gags flew over their heads through the confusion. A single long take with a roving camera would have kept the original energy of the piece and showcased the choreography but again you’re dealing with the limitations of singing live – trying to get the voice, dance and camera right at the same time. If there was a case for lip syncing a single scene, this would have been it.

So the pieces that worked where shown as full long takes. The pieces that didn’t work were over cut. And there lies the major flaw of the modern musical.

Editing is one of the most important tools in the filmmaker’s arsenal, fast cutting a popular modern style of guiding the audiences’ eye to what the director wants seen (albeit with a sledgehammer). Live theater is more subtle, the audience can explore the stage, look at what ever he or she desires – fixate on a star if need be. A film musical will always be a bit of a compromise between the two – either it has to be a film using all the technical tricks of the director’s medium and drop the musical side, or it has to abandon those directorial tools and focus the theatrical performance and rely solely on the elements of the actor’s medium.

I think it’s possible to find compromise and make it work. Chicago uses a contrivance of putting all the musical numbers on a burlesque stage that exists in the character’s heads and it’s my favorite musical of the modern era. But Les Miserables coultn’t find that proper mix. It soars when it allows the performances to come through but gets lost when it tries to be a movie.