Les Miserables – The Movie, Applause and Speeches

IMG00695-20121204-1806I was privileged to be invited to an early private screening of the soon to be released movie of Les Miserables this week.  Many of the people in the audience had been involved in the making of the film, so there was a rare hubbub of chatter and excitement in the cinema, of people greeting each other as long lost buddies, and nervous anticipation of what they would see of their work on the screen.

Before it began, there were speeches from the producers and Tom Hooper, the Director, thanking all the contributors and crafts people involved; and then to everyone’s surprised delight, Hugh Jackman bounded up the aisle to add that extra little bit of star dust to the proceedings.

I’ve been lucky enough to go to a couple of the anniversary performances of the stage show, and at those, the star of the proceedings, the puppet master, the one to whom all the others defer has always been Cameron Mackintosh, the theatrical producer; in a show that makes performers’ careers, rather than using already famous names, his is the name everyone knows already.  For the film, boasting a number of big name actors, the spotlight most definitely fell on the ‘talent’.

Warmed up by the opening speeches, everyone was primed for an enthusiastic and noisy reception for the film itself.  I don’t think I’ve ever applauded a film before, but, in amongst this crowd it was infectious.  I suppose many of them knew the graft that had gone into the staging and recording of it, so there was applause for swooping camera shots as well as for the soaring vocals.

In his speech, Tom Hooper had explained that one key conception for the film was that all the singing would be recorded as it was performed, so that there would be no subsequent over dubbing or re-recording in a studio.  As well as putting performance pressure on the actors, this also led to technical challenges for the sound recordings and even the costume design, as the clothes had to be made from fabrics that were rustle free.

As I watched the movie, I wondered how important it was to know this background to appreciate the singing performances.  Would we even question how it had been recorded if he’d not told us?  There is an intensity to many of the more poignant songs, where the importance of conveying the emotion has been given priority over the purity of voice which does perhaps add something different, when, as they are, the faces are filmed in tight close up.

So what of the film itself?  It keeps very closely to the stage show in terms of story telling (and so is nearly 3 hours long), but with the breadth and sweep of cinema there is much more drama in the scenery and setting.  Where the stage show relies on a few people dressed in rags and a heap of junk on hydraulics as backdrop, for the film, huge sets of docks and a specially conceived city of Paris have been built.  Where on the stage prisoners doubled as students, and whores as dancing ladies, in the film each role is occupied by a different actor.

It was a relief to discover that all the star names in the main roles can actually sing, this is no Mama Mia, and there were moments of true poignancy.  The one performance that puzzled me was that of Russell Crowe as Javert; it was surprisingly contained and a bit passive for a character so ostensibly consumed by zealous righteousness.

I have to say, though, that I prefer it on stage.  There is something about the jeopardy of knowing that the actors are actually there, in front of me, risking failure, belting out the songs, that has greater visceral enjoyment to it.  Somehow the movie missed that joyous crescendo of The Master of the House, which, at each theatrical performance I’ve seen, has brought the house down; and the ensemble songs like One More Day somehow lacked the power that comes from the stage during a live performance.  The big screen is also much less forgiving of some of the clunkier exposition in the lyrics than the stage, especially when the faces singing the words are in close-up.

But if you love the show, you’ll want to see this; and if you’ve never seen it on stage, this is a good opportunity to give it a go.

And we stayed all the way right  until the end of the credits – with so many people cheering each others names, it seemed rude not to.

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