In the months leading up to this film’s release in December 2012, I was psyched, and could get pretty obnoxious about it on my Facebook page. Every day I would post long statuses: “Ten days more! Five days more!” On the day of its release, I bought a ticket, took a photo of it, posted it online, and said “This is what it feels like to have a ticket see Da Vinci‘s Mona Lisa or The Last Supper.”
And then the movie came out to a strange response of “Hmm.” My reaction, aside from the fact I had to urinate through a lot of it, was…well, I’ll get to that later. Some loved the film, some hated it, most were indifferent. Pretty soon, I felt like my role as a fan had transformed into being an apologist.
Right away, there is one point that needs immediate attention. The number one criticism this movie got, more than anything else. Every critic, every IMDb message board, everyone seemed to have a problem with all the singing, saying things like “Why do they sing all the time? I thought they were going to talk and then break into song other times. You know, like in GREASE or THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I just didn’t like it. It was too much singing.”
For the past 13 months, I’ve wanted to say something so badly. Here we go:
(takes a step back from the computer and takes a deep breath)
YES, YOU FUCKING CRITIC ASSHOLES!!!!!!!!!!
THEY DON’T TALK, THEY FUCKING SING!
WHY IS THIS SUCH A FUCKING PROBLEM THAT YOU CAN’T HANDLE?!? THIS MOVIE IS SET IN A HEIGHTENED REALISM WHERE CHARACTERS COMMUNICATE ENTIRELY THROUGH SONG! IT IS A STORYTELLING CONCEIT OF THE NARRATIVE! OH, YOU CAN’T DEAL WITH THAT? NO, FOR YOU EVERY MUSICAL NEEDS TO BE LIKE GREASE WHERE EVERYONE TALKS AND THEN SINGS. WELL, FUCK YOU, YOU DONKEY-RAPING SHIT-EATERS!!!!!! DOES IT BOTHER YOU IN FOREIGN FILMS WHEN SUBTITLES ARE SHOWN? IF YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THE FACT THAT THIS IS A SUNG-THROUGH MUSICAL, YOU CAN GO FUCK YOURSELF, YOU FUCKING PIECES OF SHIT!!!
Okay, brief history lesson: since almost the beginning of theatre, there have been many plays that incorporate music into the narrative. Starting in the 1500’s came the popularity of complete operas, works that consisted entirely of music; this was primarily a Mediterranean thing in the aftermath of the Renaissance, hence why there are few English-language operas. In the 1900’s, Broadway grew and popularized our modern notion of musical theatre. When we think of the classic Broadway musicals such as HELLO DOLLY, GYPSY, PORGY AND BESS, and the work of Rogers and Hammerstein, we see that tradition of “talk most of the time, then occasionally break into song.” I’ll just call this “the GREASE approach.” The idea of the “sung-through musical” caught on later, often attributed to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Given the lack of proper operas written in English, here was something that was long-awaited. JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, EVITA, CATS, and RENT were all Broadway jauggernauts and called “rock operas,” which they were.
Yet somehow, this genre cannot seem to transition to film, and I’ve never understood why. It seems to me that, given the visual nature of film, presenting a story that’s entirely in song, similar to a music video, would be more cinematic than the traditional GREASE approach, which is inherently theatrical. If you have characters talking and then suddenly breaking into song, doesn’t that hurt the pacing?
In my article about Pink Floyd’s THE WALL, I commented on this problem. That film, based on a rock album, seemed to alienate audiences. In 1996, that film’s director Alan Parker, a director who has made several musicals, made his film version of EVITA, a criminally underrated film, which is the best film of a sung-through musical ever made. The visuals and camera-work are amazing and Madonna, who has never been considered a very good actress, gives her best performance, because she is acting in a medium identical to her music videos. Yet no one cared about EVITA, and the response was the same: “I didn’t realize it was a complete musical. Don’t they ever talk? I can’t connect to the story if they don’t talk.” FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING MOTHERFUCKERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Then in 2004 came the film version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which actually does contain a small amount of dialog, but is about 80% sung-through. I happened to like it a lot, but again, audiences just called it “boring.” And then, in 2012, came LES MIZ and it was the same criticism all over again. “Wait, they don’t talk at all?” I guess none of these people remember the film versions of EVITA or PHANTOM; they probably didn’t know sung-through musicals existed.
So wait, what about Anne Hathaway‘s “I Dreamed a Dream” scene? This performance and scene was praised by everyone. Even folks that hated the movie liked this scene. Folks connected with it, felt emotion from it, applauded it, gave her an Oscar for it.
For the past 13 months I have wondered: what did this scene do right that the rest of the film didn’t? If the sung-through format was able to work so powerfully in these four minutes, why did the rest of the movie seem to bore people?
I came to the conclusion that “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful because it captures a moment that is 100% about character, which is what people ultimately go to the movies for. Perhaps music is at its strongest when it conveys emotion rather than plot. The focus of the scene isn’t the lyrics coming out of Fantine’s mouth; it’s her face. It’s not the lines she says; it’s her character choices.
Now that I got all my ire out of the way, onto the review itself. I enjoyed the film and felt it gave me exactly what I expected, yet even on the first viewing, I noticed it felt rushed. Seeing it a second time, I picked up on more flaws. I like the way the film combines a gritty/handheld feel with the heightened realism of a musical, but this fusion works better at some times than others, and the editing is choppy. I also noticed that cinematography seemed to divide people. Visually, it’s beautiful, but some complained about the awkward, unflattering closeups, though I found this to be an effective claustrophobic device. “At the End of the Day” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” used these closeups the most effectively. “A Heart Full of Love” was also a nice sequence. I used to call that song “A Cunt Full of Cum” when I was in high school.
The songs were recorded live on set, which was an odd choice. It leads to them feeling more acted than sung. If this is your first time hearing these beautiful songs, you may not be impressed, and I don’t think anyone bought the film’s soundtrack. A few songs, such as “Bring Him Home” and “Beggars At the Feast” could have been cut, while an original song “Suddenly” is okay but struggles to stand apart from the rest.
Of the acting, of course Hathaway and Hugh Jackman were the standouts. Sasha Baron Cohen is also good. You can tell he’s having fun, and his “Master of the House” sequence is one of the easiest to adapt from stage to film as it makes a great montage.
Eddie Redmayne does a good job as Marius and I liked that his relationship with the grandfather, a nice nod to the book, was included; I just don’t particularly like Redmayne’s singing voice. Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, and Helena Bonham Carter do what they can with limited screen time. Finally, there’s Russell Crowe. I feel he isn’t so much bad as he just seems distracted throughout the film. Someone commented to me: “He was probably distracted because he was thinking about having to sing when he should have been acting.” Crowe was an odd choice; to be fair, I don’t think his Javert is terrible. I just feel that role has been played so many times in much better performances and by better singers. While every other member of the cast did at least something to make the role their own, Crowe didn’t.
Finally, there were a few choices that were odd. “Who Am I?” is a beautiful song, but when Valjean runs in to the courtroom, confessing his identity, the scene plays very flat. Why doesn’t he rip open his shirt and show the 24601 tattoo? Wouldn’t that have been both more visual and more dramatic? Then there’s the end: in my opinion, the whole finale of Valjean basically “ascending into Heaven” was already corny on stage, and even more so on film, and hurt how it ended. I will end this article by telling you how MY film version would have played out.
So at one point earlier in the film, perhaps right after “Look Down,” there’s a scene of Marius and Enjolras chatting at the ABC Cafe. Through some short transitionary song, Marius laments being estranged from his grandfather because of his politics, but Enjolras emphasizes the need to be part of social change and how society needs to evolve. This scene would also help communicate to the audience the friendship between these two, which got skimmed over I thought.
So then the scene of Valjean’s death is exactly the same, except we don’t actually see Fantine, we just hear her singing in voiceover to Valjean. Hence, we lose the whole supernatural aspect and the scene is a lot more grounded in reality (granted, the actress playing Fantine would probably protest this as she has such limited screentime to begin with, and here I am cutting out her last scene, but this is my fantasy). After “To love another person is to see the face of God,” Valjean dies and the scene ends. Cut to Cossette and Marius at Pere-Lachaise cemetery, standing solemnly over a grave. The tombstone has no name on it, only a poem. The English translation of the poem (this is taken directly from the book) is as follows:
He sleeps. Though his mettle was sorely tried
He lived, and when he lost his angel, died
It happened calmly on its own
The way night comes when day is done
After a beat, Cossette and Marius begin to turn away the grave and walk through the cemetery. As they do, Marius looks up to one of the towers where someone (maybe a churchwarden; or might it be too cliched to have another little boy as a surrogate-Gavroche?) is waving the red flag, causing him to smile. As the couple exit the cemetery, the reprise of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is heard, not as a chorus, but as lone female aria in voiceover (could be Fantine, or could be anyone really), and it sings over the empty cemetery. Hence the sentiment that’s conveyed by this final song is not “We’re all together again in Heaven!” but rather something much more in line with Victor Hugo‘s message: that the spirit of the revolution lives on, even if not necessarily through violence, and that all of us have an obligation to enact social change and improve the world we hope to see “somewhere beyond the barricade.”
As the song reaches its final crescendo, the final image of the film is the French flag but with the smaller red flag dissolved over it, still being waved. Even after the song ends, the flag continues to waves for a good five seconds. FADE TO BLACK.