In 1998, a trailer advertised a movie based on a story which “became a musical that conquered the world.” It was for a movie of Les Miserables. A NON-MUSICAL movie . Ever since then, the Les Miz fan in me has been waiting to see the musical come to the screen. Now that I finally have, my reaction is predictably mixed.
Most modern movie musicals rely on lots of fast editing to keep the songs visually interesting. In a dance number, you can jump cut all over the place, but the question always remains - what the hell do you do with the big solo ballads? Alan Parker's Evita turned “Don't Cry for Me, Argentina” into a redundant flashback montage. Ditto for “One Song, Glory” in Chris Columbus' Rent. And Hooper faced an especially daunting challenge with Les Miz, which has a big solo about once every five minutes. What we mostly get is long takes (sometimes half the song) of extreme close-ups of the singer's face. I give Hiddleston credit for bucking the trend, but all those close-ups of people sobbing sometimes felt like that oft-parodied “I'm so scared right now” scene from The Blair Witch Project.
I actually found Fantine's (Anne Hathaway) “Come to Me” more tearjerking than the much-touted “I Dreamed a Dream”, probably because it felt more like a scene.
During “On My Own”, Eponine's wandering around the dark, empty streets, the rain mercilessly pouring down on her, and I was thinking, “this is exactly how I pictured this scene.” And then she settles down in one spot – and you know that's all you're gonna see until the end of the song.
“Stars”, sung by the unwavering lawman Javert (Russell Crowe), has some nice symbolic shots, including Notre Dame cathedral looming in the background, (a nod to Victor Hugo's other most famous novel?) Although I would have expected them to show more...well...stars. Also, I missed the harpsichord in the orchestrations. (Wait, wasn't I praising this part?)
I wondered how they were going to do “One Day More”, the song in which almost every character sings different things at the same time (which I love). They pulled it off, but it was kind of methodical - Now we're looking at this character singing. Now this one. Now this one. I didn't think the editing built up the tension the way the song does. But it's followed by “Do You Hear the People Sing?” which is cleverly staged with the revolutionaries hijacking a funeral procession.
Basically, whenever the visuals do get more inventive, the movie soars.
But there's some stuff that seemed more conceivable in the abstract world of the stage. Take “Bring Him Home” - Valjean (Hugh Jackman) offering up his life in place of Marius', even going so far as to say “he's like the son I might have had, if God had granted me a son.” Screenwriters, how about slipping in a conversation between them prior to this? Or at least have them, you know, say hello and shake hands? Okay, so Valjean knows his daughter's in love with the guy, but even she only met him once...through a fence.
Also during “Bring Him Home”, Valjean suddenly walks in front of a huge eye painted on the wall. The symbolism of the “Eye of God” watching him pray was so over-the-top, I just had to laugh.
Valjean also gets a new ballad,“Suddenly”, (sung to a sleeping Young Cosette) which is OK but will probably not go down with “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” in musical history.
Colm Wilkinson, the original West End/Broadway Valjean, shows up for a cameo as the monsignor who shows Jackman's Valjean mercy. This may be the most perfect cameo since Jackman cameoed in X-men: First Class.
The big stars – Jackman, Crowe, Hathaway, etc. - all do very well, and I'm sure will get tons of praise, but the street urchin Gavroche totally steals the show. This kid is just awesome. As he sings, “this only goes to show what little people can do!” Second to him are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bohnam Carter, who bring much-needed comic relief as the theiving Thenardiers. (Carter acted more like I picture Mrs. Lovett in this movie than she did in Sweeney Todd). I feel sorry for poor Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia), who does her best to look pure and good and radiant as Cosette, but is just given nothing to do.
But yeah, it was entertaining and had some really good stuff in it. I came out of the theater singing “Master of the House”, so I guess that's a good sign.