Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Miserables: Something Appealing, Something Appalling

Appealing actors give their all to make us believe that rhymes and melody arise on the spot, while an orchestra plays discreetly in the background, and we buy it.  The crowd in a suburban multiplex applauded at the satisfying reprise of "Can you Hear the People Sing," an effective transfer of curtain call to film. I heard sobs earlier, from different areas of the theatre. 

The director Tom Hooper told NPR that he approached this musical as an alternate world where everyone sings their feelings, and his job was to let the actors practice their craft.  He arranged for them to sing with live piano accompaniment transmitted to their ears by accompanists responsive to the actors' every pause and breath -- and copious tears. He shot many songs in close-ups, continuous shots that let us see that tears arose from within the actors, not from filmmakers' trickery. 

The picture's first twenty minutes give us harrowing images of class brutality, but it's not a Marxist manifesto: we end up unironically at Versailles (if my recognition isn't faulty) in fancy dress.  In between, the police chief's single-minded pursuit of justice can't help but appear ridiculous, though Russell Crowe sings well and acts with conviction. He has to sing one of the lyricist's egregious rhymes, "nip in the bud" to go with "blood."  My friend Suzanne and I snickered.  

I surrender to the movie. I love the characters, and the actors who embody them, and the orchestra that generates such lovely sound behind them. 

My reservations are as old as the original Broadway production's cast album. I'd heard so much about the show that I bought it immediately when it arrived.  I cried more than once listening to the two-LP set.  I also cringed with shame for crying at it, fully aware how I'd been manipulated both by the musical's creators and by Hugo himself.  It's a formula:  Give us appealing characters, put them in situations where they sacrifice themselves, and we'll cry.  An hour after listening to the music, I ran into former student Scott Johnson, then in high school, and proposed that we could probably sketch out a show as effective in an afternoon.  He wasn't so interested, though he has gone on to a career as songwriter-singer.

It's gripping, its cast members inspire loyalty, its music and lyrics (except for "in the bud" and Hugh Jackman's vibrato on "Bring Him Home") go by as if it were perfectly natural for charactes to sing: I'm sold.

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