Since its release, both critics and the general public have been debating furiously over the quality of the singing performances of Hollywood A-listers in Les Miserables.Each of the leads, and in particular Russell Crowe, have had their fair share of damning critique from professional reviewers and social media websites alike. The opinions of singers (whether professional or not) and career musicians spark my interest, as I suppose, such experts in music should really have the last word in this debate.
Comments from this expert demographic of my Twitter and Facebook feeds include:
“Where were the singing teachers on Les Mis?”
“Why weren’t singers cast in Les Mis? It’s sort of important in a musical.”
“Javert (Russell Crowe) deserved to die for his poor performance.”
And there are many more like it. Now, I am a fan of Les Miserables, the West End musical, which for some is enough to discount my musical integrity in itself, so when I sat down to watch the film, I wanted to enjoy it but like many, I was worried about the singing. The film does suffer from the same weaknesses of the musical, which for me is poor pacing of the opening and an ending which for the sake of rounding everything off neatly, rambles on for too long. However, the epic narrative is told so perfectly through the struggles of the lead characters, I have always been able to overlook these issues. This, combined with some of the most acclaimed and most regularly performed songs to be found in the musical canon, makes for a engrossing theatrical and cinematic experience.
One of the huge challenges of the 23 year old theatrical version is to find a cast with enough vocal prowess to carry huge roles like Jean Valjean (originally crafted in London by Colm Wilkinson) and also comparatively fleeting characters like Fantine or Eponine, whose tragic character arcs force concentrated and brief moments of surging emotion, giving actors the unenviable task of creating audience sympathy almost immediately before each in their turn dive into the depths of musical despair. Without this emotional sympathy, the purpose of songs like ‘On my Own’ and ‘I dreamed a dream’ are rendered useless. Part of the success of Les Miserables has always been that audiences subconsciously understand that they have to be receptive to the rollercoaster-like emotional nature of the plot. It reaches out to theatre goers who want quick-fire (well, reasonably quick, it’s a long show) and direct injection of emotions tragic, comedic, love, and pride. It really has everything packed in. The most successful casts have to combine considerable acting, as well as singing talent to achieve such results.
So, when Tom Hooper brought together a cast of well regarded Hollywood actors to attempt this not inconsiderable feat, I can admit to being skeptical of the ability of Wolverine, General Maximus and Catwoman to share the responsibility of carrying the vocal challenges of the score. The acting quality on offer was undeniable, but I questioned whether some of the great Broadway or West End vocalists would have been more suitable for the cast list, despite their lack of cinematic pedigree. Upon a more in depth look at the list, however, the lesser characters are full of these names, including Colm Wilkinson (The Priest) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and others such as Aaron Tveit and Killian Donnelly (both West End leads). It was immediately noticeable when one of these minor characters started singing as the gulf between them and some of the leads was thrown into perspective. However, rather than being irritating, these little gems of vocal performance add a depth of singing talent to the cast. At points in the theatrical version where I have found my attention slipping, the film cast ratchet up the stakes and engage the listener further. Characters that previously didn’t interest me became as interesting as the leads, and shone from a musical perspective. The old saying you are only as good as your weakest link comes to mind, and the minor roles in the Les Miserables film are as strong as any and can be celebrated.
It is not inconceivable that the weakest link might be found in the lead roles, and of course, this is where critics of the cast focus their attention. I cannot deny that Russell Crowe’s musical performance is sub-par, or that Hugh Jackman’s vocal in ‘Bring him home’ is one of the weakest I’ve heard, but to immediately damn these performances based on the quality of the singing is, I believe, to misunderstand the film makers’ artistic interpretation of the piece. The sets, the costumes, the make-up and the world that Hooper creates is deliberately realistic, something that cannot be done for the stage show.
“I wanted the film to feel real and visceral” - Tom Hooper
At no point does the director break from the realistic setting. It would not have been inconceivable for some of the solo numbers to ascend into a world of flashbacks or idealist imagery. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ could easily have incorporated imagined visions of a happy mother and daughter, but instead the director chooses a long uninterrupted close up of Anne Hathaway, trusting her performance and the music to carry the audience through an otherwise static four and a half minutes, a directorial decision that reminded me of Butch’s one-sided conversation with Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.
The sound design too was “real”. In big chorus numbers such as ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’ there was no uniformity in mix levels as we are accustomed to hearing in other Hollywood musicals. If the camera was facing a large crowd directly, the chorus filled the front speakers as if we were stood in front of them, as one would expect. This shot would cut away to Eddie Redmayne, climbing a carriage and singing out of time due to the delay caused by the space between the crowd and his position. The crowd sounds more distant, making full use of the cinema surround sound, and his vocal becomes the central focus along with the camera. Finally a distant shot over rooftops placing the crowd far away from the camera and the audio adjusts to compensate, putting the crowd at a distance in the audio to match the visual. This results in a mix that on a soundtrack studio record would be awful, but when combined with the film was a masterful choice. At no point did it seem as though any of the singing had been recorded in a recording studio. The choice of recording all the singing live has been well documented and is breathtaking in its honesty, performance and realism.
“I was so passionate about doing it live, I made it clear that I wouldn’t do the film unless I did it live. That was my level of belief that live singing was the way to go for this particular story. It came out of a lot of thinking about the musical form, partly it was personal, but even in the great musicals I have to get over the lip-syncing issue; I have to forgive the lip syncing issue. I feel a slight feeling of embarrassment when people lip-sync unless it’s done absolutely perfectly. And I didn’t want any of that falsity in this film. I wanted it to be very real.” - Tom Hooper
With this choice of realism over fantasy, I believe it follows that, in the real world, all men are not born fantastic singers. It did not matter to me that Javert, the prison guard and inspector, had a gruff and at times, agricultural tone because he was being portrayed in the film as a real person. I am not saying that Crowe is a good singer, but I am arguing that in his case, it didn’t matter because as a character, he was real. He is not the exception either, Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen combine for a rough listen, as their characters might well do, and the women in the factory and the prostitutes also don’t come across as angelic, fully trained singers. Even the experienced Colm Wilkinson has blemishes throughout his performance. Hooper is quoted as saying “this is a world like ours but where people communicate through song” and, as if the real world decided tomorrow to sing rather than speak, I can completely forgive any of the cast for their level of vocal ability. In fact, I applaud it.
Whether you are a musician or not, the passion lying behind the vocals from all departments of the film’s talent, casts the need for vocal perfection into insignificance. In a music industry that has often come under attack for auto-tuning and the rise of the ‘talentless’ pop star, it is refreshing to see a mainstream production dismiss the tricks and secrets of modern audio techniques and return to the raw, unadulterated, one take performances of old. After all, would Bob Dylan be half as acclaimed if he could sing like an X Factor winner. Les Miserables is a film of real performances (I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed, or been able to sing whilst being doused with gallons of rain water) which does not hide from the imperfections of its leading actors which, for me, makes watching it all the more engrossing.
This may be a difficult idea to swallow for those who argue that the musical is an artform that lives and breathes on the suspension of disbelief. Of course, there is no orchestra following real people around, and of course, we don’t sing through our daily lives. However, the decision to make Les Miserables as authentic as possible only adds to the impact of the film. Be assured, critics, it would be a much more painful watch if the broken and just ravaged Fantine stood strong and belted ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ with arms stretched open wide, however willing our suspension of disbelief may be.
The vocal performances, whether strong or not, are supported by an acting tour-de-force and in particular Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne throw in performances at the top of their game. Hathaway’s Oscar nomination is well deserved indeed. The choice to record all the vocals live is well rewarded here, with a standard and quality of acting that wouldn’t be out of place in many a well acclaimed film without a musical soundtrack to compete with.
Another aspect for a musician or music lover to really enjoy is the re-orchestrated score. Rather than dig in deep and stick with the original orchestrations, Claude-Michel Schonberg agreed to new orchestral interpretations to be created after the filming was complete. This freedom gave the film’s orchestrators a blank canvas to restructure the score around the onscreen performances and breathes new life into a very well-worn orchestral accompaniment.
Les Miserables will continue to divide the opinions of musicians and singers and this argument of realism will not assuage the purist singers who want to hear perfection in a vocal performance (and that doesn’t exclude emotional perfection). Les Mis is, after all, a musical work which demands much from a singing perspective, and whether Hooper’s decision to put realism and acting first can stand the test of time is yet to be seen. However, Hooper and his A-lister team can be proud of their film, acting and singing, as at the end of the screening I attended, the room erupted in applause - something I have not witnessed in a UK cinema, and don’t expect to again for a while. I certainly heard the people sing.