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I know I haven't really written a legit entry here in a while, but I have the urge to today, so I will. Haha!
Today I saw the Les Miserables movie, and HOLY SHIT I was blown away. Now, those of you that know me well know that I'm EXTREMELY critical when it comes to musicals. I love musical theater to the point of obsession, and when I see a performance of a musical, I always nitpick about what I like and don't like. For me, it doesn't really matter if people are just good singers- they also have to be heard, act well, be convincing, etc. for me to say that they were perfect. Yes, this does apply even to middle and high school shows, though I am more lenient the littler the kids are (I tend to be much harder on a director if they pick a show that little kids can't handle, though).
But anyway, all that segue was just to inform you that when I say I loved the Les Miserables movie, that's saying a lot, because if I had things to nitpick, I'd write about them here. Well, I guess I'll say that I loved 90% of it....with the 10% going to Russell Crowe, who was woefully unprepared to play Javert. However, given how TERRIBLE the movie could have been (I heard rumors about Taylor Swift playing Eponine early on that made me want to tear my hair out), the fact that 90% of it is perfect...is pretty awesome.
The standout was obviously Hugh Jackman. His performance as Valjean was INCREDIBLE. He truly BECAME that character, in a way I have seen few actors (on both the screen and stage) accomplish. It was amazing to watch. If Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln wasn't in the running, I'd say Jackman was a lock for the Oscar. 2nd place goes to Anne Hathaway and her AMAZING performance of "I Dreamed a Dream"...she was another one that really went full throttle. Like I said, Russell Crowe was really the only disappointment, which is a shame because Javert is such an amazing, complex character. Not that Crowe didn't try...but it's kind of hard to play Javert when your singing voice sounds like you're yawning, and when you don't really have the power to put any emotion behind your notes (this was especially apparent in the opening "And I am JAVERT! Do not forget my name, do not forget me, 24601...", which is done masterfully in the TAC). Which brings me to a little side note...
For those of you not familiar with musical lingo, recordings of musicals are NOT called soundtracks. There is actually a technical reason for this involving the process of making a soundtrack, but I forgot it. Most people refer to musical recordings by the cast on the recording- usually the OBC (Original Broadway Cast) or OOBC (Original Off-Broadway Cast).
For Les Miserables, though, there are a LOT of different recordings to keep track of, more than for almost any other musical I know of. This is especially unique for a relatively recent musical (as opposed to Show Boat, Oklahoma!, etc.), but Les Miserables, like a lot of the huge 80's musicals (Phantom of the Opera, Cats, etc.) has a HUGE, mega-fandom. Plus, because it's almost entirely sung through, it can be performed as a concert version pretty easily. So, for Les Miserables, you have:
1. The Original London cast (the first English recording of the musical)- OLC
2. The Original Broadway cast- OBC
3. The Complete Symphonic Recording- CSR (which features the ENTIRE SCORE)
4. The 10th Anniversary concert- TAC (which basically featured an all-star mega-cast of the best people to ever star in Les Miserables. It's also my personal favorite recording).
5. The 25th Anniversary concert- Again, I've never seen this one abbreviated, but I'd guess it would be TFAC. This one tried to replicate the success of the TAC, but with the fatal flaw of casting Nick Jonas as Marius. WHYYYYYY.
6. The London touring cast recording (which I've never listened to, and I guess you'd abbreviate LTC).
7. And now, the soundtrack of the Les Miserables movie.
And that's NOT EVEN INCLUDING non-English recordings (including the Original French concept album), and several other big mountings of the show that were never recorded, like the limited-engagement Broadway revival. That's a lot of recordings! Whew!
....that was meant to be a much shorter note. Heh.
Anyway, I was impressed with lots of aspects of the movie besides the actors. First, the fact that it included most of the songs (with the exception of "Dog Eats Dog", which isn't even a good song anyway) was pretty awesome. Even the Rent movie didn't do that. Yeah, some of the songs are cut a lot shorter, like "Turning", but it's still quite an achievement!
Also, I feel like the movie really enhanced Les Miserables in some way. It's not the same as seeing it onstage, of course, but it came awfully close. This was partly due to filming the songs live (which was an AWESOME AWESOME DECISION), but it was also really cool that you got to actually see the big setpieces, SEE the streets flooding with blood, etc. You didn't really have to do as much suspension of disbelief as you'd normally have to when you watch a production of the show.
Thus, I think that Les Miserables succeeds where lots of other movie musicals failed. Other movie musicals (I'm going to look mainly at the ones released recently- Rent, The Producers, Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Phantom of the Opera, and maybe a bit at Mamma Mia!, though that one's a bit different because it's a jukebox musical) have made pretty critical errors (I think) that stopped them from being true masterpieces.
This wasn't always the case. Movie musicals used to be big- think about West Side Story, Oliver!, the countless movie musicals featuring Julie Andrews, etc. But they soon became passe and were on the verge of dying out, until they were revitalized in the early 2000's. But until Les Miserables, there never was (again, in my opinion) a contemporary movie-musical that matched the original.
This was for several reasons.
1. Directors sometimes made the mistake of going with star power over vocal power (most egregiously with Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!, but Gerard Butler in POTO is guilty of this too). Like I said earlier, Les Mis has this problem with Russell Crowe, but on the whole, it did do a good job of casting famous actors who could sing (Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried) along with newcomers (Samantha Barks).
2. But directors can also fail if they swing too far in the opposite direction and make a movie featuring (most of) the original cast of the musical. This was seen in Rent and The Producers. This may seem like a good idea, and it is....but to a point. If you take this route too far, you'll end up with a filmed production of the stage show, which is basically what The Producers was. Rent also kind of suffered from this, but instead of ending up with a filmed production of the stage show, it ended up with a filmed, watered-down version of the stage show. This is painful for me to write because I ADORE the original cast of Rent, but that's kind of the problem with making a musical of a movie 10 years after its Broadway debut...and using most of the original cast. Plus, what makes Rent so WONDERFUL is its energy and grit, which isn't apparent in the movie. This is where having the actors perform live could've helped a LOT. Of course, this was slightly rectified with the actual filmed production of Rent, but still. And that leads me to the next mistake...
3. It is VERY VERY VERY difficult for a movie musical to capture the spirit of the stage show. Which is weird, because the earlier movie musicals are very GOOD at this. This may be because contemporary musicals can be more complex (see: all of Sondheim's works), but shows like Carousel and West Side Story did have successful movies. I think it may not be a complexity issue, but it might be one of aesthetics and tone. The only really dark movie musical to be filmed successfully prior to Les Miserables was West Side Story- even the ending of Little Shop of Horrors had to be changed to suit the audience. In terms of aesthetics, I think that some of the musicals that have failed as movies (I'm talking about Rent and Sweeney Todd here) are musicals that can really only exist on stage, or maybe as a filmed stage production (if that). And there's really nothing wrong with that. Tim Burton tried to put his spin on Sweeney Todd by upping up the gore, but....Sweeney Todd is NOT just about gore and aesthetics. It's a show where all the songs (including often cut ones, like the Judge's version of "Johanna") need to be present in order for the audience to really GET the musical...and it's also a show where all the actors really need to be vocal powerhouses. And yeah, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter did try hard, but I think Sondheim musicals are a "do or do not. There is no try" type of situation. This is why I'd be skeptical about a film of Into the Woods were to get off the ground (despite the all-star cast Sondheim put together for it....)
4. So, you've picked a musical that's easy to film, the cast can (mostly) sing, and you've done a good job at capturing the show's aesthetics. You're in the clear! Except...you're not. This is where movies like Hairspray and Dreamgirls come in. Both movies were very good, featuring both unknowns and famous actors. Both movies were well-received by audiences, and even I liked them initially. But later, I forget them when thinking about movie musicals, because they didn't really ADD anything to the musical. I was left thinking "yeah, but why did you make a movie of this?" It's not like I got more out of Hairspray by seeing the setpieces of....1960's Baltimore, for example. Whereas with Les Miserables, I feel like the audience really benefited from seeing the scenery and turmoil of that time. Les Mis is a show where the time period and atmosphere really serve as a crucial part of the show, and being able to see that on the big screen really added to the experience.
Which is why I think that, looking forward, directors should look to larger-scale musicals to turn into movies. When I left the theater today, I thought to myself "what would a Miss Saigon movie look like? What would a Ragtime movie look like?" (I know there has already been a film of the novel, but I mean a film of the musical). These are also both shows that don't get staged very much because of technical issues (helicopters, fire effects, etc.) and casting demands, so it would be a treat to see them get the Les Miserables treatment IF they were done right.

EDIT: Originally, I SOMEHOW forgot to discuss Chicago, which is weird because it was probably, in my mind, the only other movie musical that achieved anything close to what Les Miserables did. And it succeeded because, as the title shows, Chicago is as much about the place and time period as it is about the music. When I watched Chicago (the movie) it was interesting to see that time period come to life, in a way (even if it was highly stylized, but even Les Miserables was stylized, to a point). The movie of Chicago did cut some songs, but, like Les Miserables, they kept the ones that really packed a punch. The actors were all good, too- they weren't AMAZING STELLAR SINGERS, but you don't really need that as much for Chicago as you do in Les Miserables. I've seen both the movie and stage show of Chicago, and in some ways I thought the movie actually had more of an impact. On the stage, you can pretend that the events were all a show and that the events depicted weren't really based (loosely, but still) on actual events. When you watch the movie, though, and actually SEE girls lining up to buy "Roxie dolls" and innocent women being hanged...that's a different experience.
This is why it would be interesting to see a movie of Miss Saigon or Ragtime, because both shows depend very heavily on the time period and places where they're set. Ragtime, especially, is quite Les Mis-like in some aspects (obviously with a more uplifting ending and idealistic POV), and it would be cool to see how something like that would play out on the screen.

Wow, look at all that teal deer! I didn't mean to go on for this long. Heh. I'm making this a public entry, though! Whoo!


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