Do You Hear the People Sing?

Les Mis PosterBy Carmen Denia, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

So here’s the obligatory Les Miserables movie appreciation post (a close relation of the obligatory Les Mis Facebook status update). Don’t worry, I won’t gush about it too much. Least, I’ll try not to. No spoilers either so fear not, oh friend, you may read on.

Anyway, I thought Hooper’s Les Miserables was absolutely wonderful.

I think my chief fear when I first heard about the movie – or whatever it is you call that tingling feeling at the back of your head that something is about to go down badly – was that it had such big names working on it. People tend to agree that’s a recipe for a glamourised, cotton candy version of a story that is actually gritty and full of brokenness.  Yet the only thing that kept me from not watching was the same stellar cast and director – Jackman, Hathaway, Crowe, Mackintosh, and Hooper being people whose work I have long admired. I placed my faith in their track record, and I am so happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed. I’d like to think that the majority of the viewers out there won’t be either. (Yes, even if you’ve read the book and are a huge fan of it.)

The two things that I adored the most about the movie were things that I have since read a few movie critics didn’t like. But I’ll just be contrary. So here goes:

I loved the broken, imperfect moments in the singing.  I loved how Anne Hathaway sang I Dreamed a Dream with less of the fanfare of the usual renditions and more of the fragility and the reality of the ‘hell’ she’s in. (Her Golden Globe is so well-deserved.) It felt like I finally understood the anguish in the song when she sang it.  Same for Barks’s On My Own; it was a lot more tender and miserable and a lot less notice-my-vocal-chops than the usual.  Her rendition made me feel like I heard the song for the first time, and I really had to stop and take the lyrics with the scene.

I think a lot of people can appreciate the truthfulness in their portrayals; it’s something I’ve always looked for when I watch musicals – performers with the ability to go beyond the lyrics and really make me feel what their character feels, even at the cost of not sounding as powerful or pleasant as theater critics would expect them to be.

Of course, Jackman was his usual musically brilliant self. There was nothing remotely cotton candy about his Jean Valjean.   His hair was almost always uncombed, his eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and I doubt I will ever forget how he looked when he came out of the underground tunnels covered head to toe with feces, filthier than even a sewer rat.

The rest of the cast supports brilliantly as well.  Huttlestone as Gavroche was such a showstopper.  The Thenardiers were deliciously malicious and comical at turns. (Trust Cohen and Carter to pull that off.)  I even liked Crowe’s singing. Walking out of the theater  I overheard a lot of the other viewers commenting on how his vocals were not on par with the other cast members, but I honestly didn’t notice, given his superb acting.  Besides, he wasn’t jarringly off-key. He was very true, clear, and natural in how he portrayed Javert.

I also loved the close-up shots. I loved how they were singing head on to the camera. For all the other musical-lovers with bad eyesight out there, I’m sure you know how it feels to only see the general fuzzy shape of the people moving about on the stage and not their expressions. I’ve long felt that I was missing an important part of the performance, but with Les Miserables that’s not a problem. You can see every nervous tick, sideways glance, tiny smirk, grimace, grin and howl. (Marius’s eyes during the a capella opening of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and Eponine’s smile during A Little Fall of Rain are two scenes to watch out for.)

The camera’s so close that you feel like you’ve fallen into the story.  Heck, the crafting of the whole project is so good that somehow, even as a distant echo, the pain is so present that it becomes your story too. It’s the story of all of us: how our little lives and the bigger battles of the world intertwine, how dignity and reality can clash, how we seek redemption beyond failure, and how there is always one more day.

 To love another person is to see the face of God. 
– Victor Hugo

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