Les Miserables

A promo video giving moviegoers a glimpse into the forthcoming film version of Les Misérables was released recently. Here’s the video:

I’m generally not fond of musicals, but I am quite interested in seeing this production. My attention was caught when director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, 2010) said this about musicals: “You can tell in your bones there’s something false or unreal about people singing to playback. . . . [S]inging live has such an impact on the power and realism of this story.” To avoid a false or unreal production of the classic play, Hooper sought to do something “groundbreaking.”

But is Hooper really doing something groundbreaking? Writing for Slate, Aisha Harris says no.

Even if you eliminate non-narrative concert and experimental films—which typically record vocals live—there are movie musicals that counter Hooper’s claim. As film scholar Lea Jacobs explains, musical numbers at Paramount Studios were recorded live on set “whenever possible” as early as 1931, and RKO recorded singers live—accompanied either by a live orchestra present off-screen or a recording of the score—until 1934’s The Gay DivorceeCompare Hooper’s Les Misérables to 1932’s Love Me Tonight, for instance, which recorded the full orchestra and the vocals simultaneously while filming, and you see that the new film is not quite as innovative as they’re suggesting.

After this corrective, Harris backs off from criticism and does say this approach “should help the actors appear emotionally invested in their characters during the songs—even if, in the end, the only live vocals we truly hear from them come from this short promotional clip.”

The Les Mis promo video certainly creates the impression that Hooper and the actors are speaking about all movie productions of musicals. But there is a chance that when the actors in this video were not talking about filmed musicals as a whole but only filmed productions of Les Mis. As Hugh Jackman (Australia) explains in the video, Hooper’s approach allows actors to alter the rate at which they perform: “I can take a little break, I can move on, I can speed it up, I can slow it down, which means I just have to worry about acting.”

Based on what Jackman says, I’m less inclined to agree with Harris. She discusses the problems director Phyllida Lloyd ran into while filming Mamma Mia! Though Meryl Streep pushed for live singing, Lloyd nonetheless had to re-record segments of Streep singing in the studio that were lost in the original filming due to background noise and the like.

But the problems with this production of Les Mis are different than those of the examples Harris gives (like Mamma Mia!). In Jackman’s case (and presumably other Les Mis actresses and actors as well), the challenges they face with production go beyond just re-recording. If they alter the speed at which they sing, they will not just have to re-sing their lines but do so to the exact tempo they originally sang their lines. This both increases the importance of getting the sound recorded properly during filming and the challenges of editing seamlessly in parts where lines have to be re-recorded.

I’m not an expert on musicals, and perhaps I stand to be corrected here. But I’d say Hooper’s Les Mis is groundbreaking in that he’s willing to break from the norms of musicals—lip-syncing, set tempos for songs, etc.—and allow for as much freshness and innovation as possible in his adaptation. If this adaptation is successful, future musical directors may free to make similar adjustments to their musicals—and this would be a welcome change for people like myself who tend to dislike musicals because they seem artificial and unrealistic.

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