Ever since Cameron Mackintosh announced that he favoured Alfie Boe to play Jean Valjean in the film version of ‘Les Miserables’, declaring that screeching musical theatre voices wouldn’t work, we have had to face the possibility that this film might not be for us. We have tried to ignore the bits of news which instilled in us a gathering sense of doom, such as Mackintosh’s incredible claim that he has waited over twenty five years to get the right cast. But now that the film has had its ‘premiere’ the sheer amount of hype and nonsense surrounding it have reached a point where we are seriously considering starting up a Les Miserables film should die campaign.
One might be forgiven for forming the impression that Mackintosh and his Hollywood backers want to exploit all the trappings which made Les Miserables popular – except its music. If only we could get it to the big screen, they seem to be thinking, without anyone noticing that……it’s a musical. And why would they want to do that? Because they must very quickly have realised that there is no way they will find ‘names’ suitable for Hollywood casting who can sing like Colm Wilkinson, Patti Lupone and Michael Ball, or their younger counterparts. In the past, when film directors couldn’t find such stars, they simply overdubbed them with people who could sing.
With overdubbing falling out of fashion, what seems to have followed is an elaborate attempt to redefine the musical as a medium that requires no real technical ability, just the ability to occasionally hold a tune and ‘act’ whilst singing. What everyone seems to have lost sight of is that the best musical theatre singers are able to convey a sense of naturalness without distorting the music. That’s why in our humble opinion it is one of the highest art forms – they make it look easy, and unfortunately, the casting directors seem to have made the mistake of thinking it is easy.
The first step in the process is to make a big fuss about the fact that the cast will be singing live on set. In a featurette released before the film, Hugh Jackman gives a lecture in the advantages of allowing actors to ‘experiment’ with their ‘interpretation’ of the music. Here’s an example:
Meanwhile Tom Hooper goes on about how ‘unnatural’ it is to pre-record the soundtrack properly. Perhaps this would have more credibility if the actors didn’t have hidden earpieces whilst singing along to a piano. Bring in a symphony orchestra to accompany the actors, and then you can call it ‘live’. If you don’t like ‘unnatural’, don’t do musicals.
Next we have the extremely low bar, apparently set by the ‘critics’ who were privileged to see the premier. Perhaps this is best illustrated by Matthew Bond’s comment in his Daily Mail review that whilst Russell Crowe doesn’t have the strongest singing voice, he is in tune, and this is a five star review. What does that say about the rest of the cast? On the other side of the pond, Amanda Seyfried is described as hitting some freakishly high notes, although the author adds that ‘this isn’t always a good thing’. And we’ve already seen for ourselves that Hugh Jackman struggles to stay in tune (unless that was an acting ‘choice’). Fans of the musical are warned they may not like the way that some of the music is not very ‘tuneful’. You can see why we have decided by now this film will have us crying, but not for the right reasons.
Then we have the ridiculous fuss made over Anne Hathaway’s ‘sacrifices’ of her figure and her hair, apparently insisting on cutting it against the advice of director Tom Hooper. Well, hair does grow back. Now, we thought Anne Hathaway was an actress, a person for whom such things would be utterly trivial. Of course she can’t help what the papers say about her, but she doesn’t have to encourage them. To top it all, we are told that her hair was cut ‘live’ on set by her personal hairdresser in a dress. Well, it’s one way to get a haircut on expenses. This is a very glossy form of naturalism, with artfully placed ripped clothes and mud, and the sight of Samantha Barks singing ‘On my own’ in the pouring rain in a skimpy low-cut top shows how unimportant realism is. It looks more like a pop video to us, but perhaps that’s the intention.
Which brings us on to a factor which seems to be at the heart of this film – the oscar buzz. Before we even get the chance to see it, we are bombarded with predictions about the oscars which are surely already in the bag. Who could possibly beat Hugh Jackman as best actor. And with Anne Hathway’s ‘heart-rending’ performance as Fantine, how could the academy refuse? You don’t win Oscars by having a good singing voice. It’s all about ’emoting’ and stealing the limelight. And of course, Tom Hooper won an oscar before (no doubt one of the reasons he was offered the gig in the first place), so he’s bound to win one again. We’ve got two words for you – Michael Cimino. It’s as if the producers have decided that they have already won the box office battle. Oscar is the real prize.
And what does Cameron Mackintosh think about the amazing success of this film, which hasn’t even opened yet. Well, he is delighted because, as he says in the Daily Mail, ‘I have a lot of musicals up my sleeve that I own the rights to. It would be wonderful for the British film industry if we became the MGM of the 21st century in this country’. Oh yes, he says, this could usher in a golden era for the musical. Golden in the sense that there is a whole lot of money to be made out of musical theatre fans. If they are willing to hand it over.