Crazy about Les Mis

23 Jan
Crazy about Les Mis

I’m obsessed with Les Misérables. I had no experience with the story in any form until this past Friday, when I saw the new movie by Tom Hooper. Since then, I’ve seen the film again, Youtubed live performances, listened to various cast recordings on Spotify, and read about various differences between novel, stage musical and film.

I would not have gotten into the whole Les Mis thing if not for the movie. That doesn’t mean that the movie is amazing or anything, nor that it should be fully credited for my new-found fascination.

The Les Mis story is like the most beautiful thing ever. It’s about redemption, self-sacrifice, love, romance, morality, the harshness of life and the hope for tomorrow, garnished with comic relief and action. The more I think about the story, the more I love it.

The other major strong point is the songs, obviously. The melodies are catchy and powerful, and the lyrics have hidden complexities beneath the simple surface of their words. There are heart-breakers like “I Dream a Dream” and “A Little Fall of Rain”, powerful songs of soul-searching like “Valjean’s Soliloquy”, the funny “Master of the House”, the dramatic “Confrontation”, the morale-raising “Do You Hear the People Sing”, the awesome “One Day More”, and tons more. I won’t say it’s all great stuff, but it’s not too far off, and it all gels together perfectly.

Neither the story nor the songs were created by the people who made the movie. The songs I have now experienced in other – generally superior – versions. The story itself I’ve still only taken in through Hooper’s vision.

Do I love the movie? I don’t know. I reckon I’ll always be thankful to it for introducing me to the whole Les Mis thing, but there are certainly things I don’t like about it very much. Russell Crowe has the physical presence required, but he does not have the singing voice to pull off the antagonist Javert character, with both his big solo numbers in the film coming off really flat and unmemorable. Comic relief duo Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring the funny for sure, but both have a tendency to mumble and Carter seems to mostly be reprising her Mrs. Lovett character from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The new song “Suddenly” which was written specifically for the film version is the dullest of the whole movie and despite being brief still grinds the movie to a halt.

Overall, however, the film is a major success. Hooper’s decision to have the singing done live on set is not as revolutionary as has been suggested – Across the Universe did the same thing back in 2007, for instance – but it does work wonders here in allowing more free form performances. “Valjean’s Soliloquy” is a great example, with Hugh Jackman pacing back and forth, into and out of light, battling with doubt with it the struggle clearly present in his face and his voice. It seems unlikely that lip-syncing to prerecorded singing would have the same effect. The other much debated style decision by Hooper is to use close-ups for many of the song numbers. Some call this suffocating; I call this intimate and effective. It’s not like it’s everywhere, as some suggest. Mostly, it’s kept to the more personal songs. There is a tune or two where a wider scope would have been preferrable, but as a whole, Hooper did a fine job here. He had a clear vision, and he followed through with it. Les Misérables is a stronger film overall than The King’s Speech, and certainly directing-wise.

Apart from the actors already I’ve already criticized, the cast ranges from good to great. The two clear standouts are Jackman and Anne Hathaway. The former pulls off a career-best transformative performance as Valjean, having me fully invested in the character’s journey while never making me think “Oh, it’s Wolverine singing.” Hathaway, of course, has the best scene of the film – and most likely of all of 2012 – with her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”. The first time I saw the film, I was stunned and had goosebumps alll the way through her song. It’s such a heart-wrencher. She sings very well indeed, but even more impressive is the sheer power-acting involved. Her Fantine is truly a woman broken by all that life has thrown at her, and it’s expressed devastatingly here. It’s a major tear jerker. On my rewatch, I kind of steeled myself against it a bit, thinking I knew what I was in for. Then that penultimate verse hits, where Fantine first sings how she hopes her love will come back to her, but then she goes “But there are dreams that can not be”, and Hathaway throws her head back a bit and there’s a tear racing down her cheek, and fuck! Raw, powerful, amazing, and heart-breaking.

But this wasn’t meant to be a review of the film. The point I want to make is that while the movie is very good, my love for it is smaller than my love for Les Mis as a whole. Or so I assume. What is it that I like better, really? I haven’t seen any full stage performance in person – though I now desperately want to – and what clips I’ve seen on Youtube are just singled out songs. The albums I’ve listened to are great, but is an album better than a film? It’s apples and oranges, no?

I can’t seem to find enough of an outlet for this new-found obsession. The film isn’t the kind of thing I can call all my friends and tell them that they just have to go see it. It’s not a film that can be discussed that much on an analytical level. I could read the novel, but past experiences have told me that me and old books don’t mix well. There are no live performances of the musical anywhere near here. I can – and will – listen to the songs again and again, but this is not enough, I fear. I feel like I’ve tweeted about Les Mis more than I should have already, and yet it’s all I can think of. My head is full of Valjeans and Fantines and Eponines and Thénardiers, all swimming around in an intermixing ocean of songs. I’m overwhelmed by it all.

Les Misérables is not the best movie of 2012. It’s no The Grey. It’s no Life of Pi. I’m not sure it’s even a The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers. And yet it has done something that no other film from last year has been able to.

For better or for worse.


Posted by on 23 January, 2013 in Misc.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

21 responses to “Crazy about Les Mis

  1. Squasher88

    23 January, 2013 at 13:57

    “The Les Mis story is like the most beautiful thing ever.” Agreed!

    “The other major strong point is the songs, obviously.” Agreed!

    “My love for it is smaller than my love for Les Mis as a whole.” We are on the same page. I adore the music so much and the story is so incredible that I feel it’s nearly impossible to make a truly terrible movie out of it.

    I gave the 1998 version 5/5 stars. I think you should try that one too. It also has a great cast.

    • Emil

      23 January, 2013 at 14:03

      Yeah, I keep reading decent things about the 1998 film. I should probably give it a go at some point. Glad to hear we seem to be on the same page regarding Les Mis. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Squasher88

      23 January, 2013 at 15:14

      Actually I gave it 4.5 out of 5, but you get my point. Good film

  2. Movies - Noir

    23 January, 2013 at 13:59

    I’m glad to hear that the movie has made an impact on you. I for one had a difficult time watching it. For me this isn’t a movie, but a musical. And a musical should be kept on the stage. But that’s my opinion and I’m not going to say that you and everyone else who like the movie a lot are wrong. It’s just the way it is – everyone appreciates “art” differently ;)

    • Emil

      23 January, 2013 at 14:02

      Aye, everyone has their own taste. I don’t understand why you would even go see it at all if you hate musicals so much, though.

      • Movies - Noir

        23 January, 2013 at 18:02

        It’s not like I hate musicals – I just don’t watch them ;) But you know, I want to see all the Oscar nominated films, so what can I do?

        And if I don’t watch it, I can’t say it’s a bad or good movie. I don’t like people who don’t give a film a chance and just complain without having seen it. It’s just not my cup of tea, but every movie deserves a chance.

        • Emil

          23 January, 2013 at 18:09

          But you just said it wasn’t even a movie. :P

  3. Fiffi

    23 January, 2013 at 15:24

    What a well written piece of text! :)

    I think I know exactly how you feel. It´s a great feeling AND a feeling of sorrow. A sorrow because you know that this is something that doesn´t happen very often and it´s a feeling you can´t share with that many people and it´s absolutley fantastic at the same time, experience moviemagic that gets to your heart like this.

    I hope Les Mis will stay there. Both in your heart and in mine.

    • Emil

      23 January, 2013 at 15:35

      Thank you for the kind words, Fiffi!

      You’re pretty much right on the money there. It’s a bittersweet thing for sure. I don’t even know if it’s just movie magic as such, though. I love the movie of course, but it’s not JUST the movie either. It’s not this masterpiece cinematic achievement or anything (except for “I Dream a Dream”), but it has spawned something more… complicated. Ugh.

      • Fiffi

        23 January, 2013 at 16:01

        I don´t think the story could have punched you in the face like that if you hadn´t experienced moviemagic. Something in the movie made you interested of learning more, listen more, see more. A heartbreaking story in an bad package is of course a heartbreaking story but still just a story. Les Mis is more than that.

        I´ve been thinking a lot about Valjean and his constant “turning the other cheek”. He wants to be the better man, doing the right thing. Did it do him any good? Okej, he never lost his selfrespect but otherwise, was it worth it?

        • Emil

          23 January, 2013 at 16:34

          That’s a fair point, actually. Interesting. I feel like I need a lot of time before I can properly evaluate the movie as a movie, rather than as the thing it has become for me.

          I think Valjean’s actions certainly did him SOMETHING good. More than anything, it brought him peace of mind, and also many years of (we assume) pleasant living; first as a wealthy businessman and mayor, then as a loving foster father.

          Could he have had a better life had he made different choices? Striving for an honest life definitely saved him from a bitter ad angry life of crime, after the bishop helped him out with the candlesticks. Then it gets trickier. If not for his goodness, he never could have met Cosette, who filled his life with happiness and meaning. But he would also have remained mayor and wealthy businessman. You could argue that he didn’t really do anything THAT wrong regarding Fantine; it was the foreman who fired her, and Valjean didn’t know what the situation was about.

          (I love what the movie did with that scene, by the way. It’s like Valjean just hands off the responsibility to the foreman because he’s panicking about seeing Javert. As far as I can tell, this little Javert touch is new for the film. In other versions, Valjean just tells the foreman to handle it because he can’t be arsed to himself. Did Valjean indirectly kill Fantine just to save his own hide? Moral ambiguity!)

          On the other hand, Valjean kind of kills Javert too by being so kind to him, which caused the inspector’s moral compass to explode from confusion. I’d chalk that up to Javert being too strict and rigid, though. Not Valjean’s fault.

          What I don’t really get about the ending is why Valjean treats the fact that he rescued Marius as a secret. Marius only found out about it due to Thénardier being a moron. Why couldn’t Valjean have told him himself? Was he just being humble, or was he for some reason ashamed about it? That’s something I didn’t quite get when I saw the movie.

          • Fiffi

            23 January, 2013 at 17:35

            Wasn´t Valjean trying to hide from Javert when he helped Marius in the “avloppsrör”? If he had told Marius right away that he was the one saving him, he probably should have to say the whole truth to him and then Cosette would find out everything.

            • Emil

              23 January, 2013 at 17:55

              I don’t think so, no. The whole reason for Valjean being at the barricades was to make sure Marius made it out alive. Marius was knocked out during the entire escape through the sewers, and as far as he knew, Valjean had already executed Javert back when Javert was a prisoner of the revolutionaries. Marius knew Valjean was fighting with them, so he would have no reason to be suspicious of him saving his life.

  4. Fiffi

    23 January, 2013 at 18:22

    Hmmm….okey, then I cant help you with the explanation :)

    • Emil

      23 January, 2013 at 21:11

      Hakuna matata. :)

  5. Hannah M

    23 January, 2013 at 22:11

    If you can get a hold of the 10th Anniversary Concert DVD, it’s excellent. It’s a concert in costume, so it’s not quite the same as a live version, but the show is sung from beginning to end, and it has my very favorite cast of singers for the show (including a couple of Disney princesses, haha, with Lea Salonga as Eponine and Judy Kuhn as Cosette). I came down very hard on Russell Crowe in the movie because Javert is my favorite character, “Stars” is one of my favorite showtunes, and Philip Quast from the 10th Anniversary Concert cast does an absolutely incredible job with it.

    (The 25th Anniversary Concert cast is pretty good as well – I like Alfie Boe’s Valjean much much better than Colm Wilkinson – but then you have to sit through Nick Jonas warbling “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables.”)

    • Emil

      23 January, 2013 at 22:38

      Is that 10th Anniversary DVD the same show as the Royal Albert Hall album? That album had an awesome “A Little Fall of Rain”, I recall. I’ll try to get my hands on a concert DVD at some point, I’m sure. Thanks for the recommendations!

      Despite listening to various versions by now, I’m still not all that fond of “Stars”. I worry that Crowe might have soured me on it forever. Time will tell.

      • Hannah M

        23 January, 2013 at 22:51

        That’s the one. It was the cast album that first hooked me on the show.

        Oh, dear. If Crowe has ruined “Stars” for someone else who hasn’t had the opportunity to marvel in the beauty of the song, I’m pretty sure I’m NEVER going to forgive him. He and Gerard Butler will just have to live in Musical Theater Inferno forever.

        • Emil

          23 January, 2013 at 23:08

          Heh. Gerard Butler has done nothing to endear himself to me as a movie actor. I don’t expect he’d be a very gifted singer.


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