Some musicals begin as film, some as television, and these are often then adapted for stage, but for the most part movie musicals find their origins in theater. It’s a tricky calculus, moving across these genres, and some have certainly made the transition better than others. Most often, it involves significant revisioning — an acceptance that we’re no longer in Kansas, dreams are a little bigger here, lights a little more garish, and one better adapt to LA conventions, and quickly too.
The theater-musical-to-film crossover requires — beyond merging genres — an assimilation of time periods: it always feels like the bringing of something old (Victorian London; the roaring twenties; the wild sixties) into something contemporary, and so necessarily newer. This is part of what made The Artist interesting, and it’s what makes the inclusion of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables among the Best Picture contenders this year similarly so. They’re not at all the same film, though I do believe one of them made the genre jump more seamlessly.
Les Mis was an experiment of sorts (as all modern movie musicals are), and I’m happy it exists, in the way I’m happy Smash exists. That Broadway-related material is being created for a mass audience speaks a kind of faith in the form, even if Les Mis and Smash might not be musical theater’s best face to present before the larger public, especially to those already disinclined from the genre. But there it is. And it’s doing… something.
The reviews of Les Mis have spoken, and while you could wade through the dissenters, most all that need be said about Hooper’s film has been done so by Film Crit Hulk Smash:
BUT WHAT IS PERHAPS MOST TROUBLESOME ABOUT THIS PARTICULAR SUBJECT MATTER IS THAT TOM HOOPER DOES SEEM TO BE RATHER GREAT WITH ACTORS. EXCEPTIONAL EVEN. EVERY PROJECT HULK HAS SEEN OF HIS IS FILLED FROM HEAD TO TOE WITH EXCELLENT PERFORMANCES, AND THAT MAKES IT WORTH HOPING HE COMES AROUND. IF HE WAS SIMPLY INFERIOR ALL AROUND, CHANCES ARE WE WOULDN’T BE HAVING THIS CONVERSATION (OR EVEN BE IN A POSITION TO HAVE IT). BUT THERE’S SO MUCH GOOD THERE.
AND SO MUCH BAD THAT GETS IN HIS OWN WAY.
Film Hulk’s all-caps typography feels especially apt for his subject matter here. There is so much good in Hooper’s Les Mis, and at times it feels like there is possibly too much good — too much of everything — in the film. For example, the inclusion of cinema and stage acting pronounces the clash between film and Broadway conventions without doing much to mediate between them, or how Hooper zooms from the wide lens of cinematic surrealism to off-kilter close-ups (for added realism?) — these elements never cohere under Hooper’s direction. Musicals are often about excess, but one rarely gets there via surrealism or realism alone, or sharp jumps between the two; for the aim is to make what might be otherwise surreal or unbelievable potentially realistic, now suddenly possible.
Hooper’s camera delimits the extravagance of his sets, his actors’ performances, even while showing them off. How are these actors using their period sets, the context of their location? Does it matter if we can’t even see it? Or, why film a sung-through musical with live singing, while also trying to control these performances through hand-held close-up? Why not let the live singing run its organic line, while having your camera do the same? These questions about resources are only frustrating because as viewers we know if only briefly, that the sets are there. The barricade boys scenes weren’t just a relief against the rest of the film because its actors were almost entirely West End theater natives who had played either Marius or Enjolras, and thus knew how to harmonize; these scenes were also the group pieces, where the camera lens was forced back. A musical is only as strong as its ensemble pieces, they often say, but Hooper’s energetic ensemble pieces seemed to stand alone, with little aesthetic resemblance or influence on how he filmed solos. But in each scene, there’s so much good there, and then Hooper’s directorial choices get in the way. Maybe what is partly so wonderful about a stage performance is how little, at that point, the director’s vision can interfere?
As a fervent defender of the musical form — movie and stage alike — I also won’t lie about its various executions. People must realize that to love Broadway doesn’t mean to throw oneself into every one of its products unreservedly. To love film isn’t to say one loves all examples of it, and just because a person loves musical theater doesn’t mean they’re uncritical by default. It shouldn’t require stating, but somehow it feels like I still do, and often. When people ask me if I’m obsessed with Hooper’s Les Mis, it’s as though to imply that the kind of love for a show isn’t object or incident-based, but fixed.
Hooper’s Les Mis is not how I would have done it, and there truly are so many clunkers among all the “good there,” but has it endeared itself to me even so? Well, yes. How I dreamed the dream for this musical is beside the point (better singers, less stars; no musical additions; more spaces between each piece; complete cinematographic overhaul), and one gets the sense that most could place their finger on what grated about the film. What I suspect, though, is that among the mess, fewer viewers realize how good this Les Mis might have been and, at times, is.
AND PERHAPS WHAT IS MOST DAMAGING TO HULK’S EYE IS THAT YOU STILL GET TO “SEE” THAT THE ACTORS ARE DOING GREAT WORK. YOU GET TO “SEE” THAT THE STORY IS GREAT AND “SEE” THE DRAMA AT PLAY, SO IT’S VERY EASY TO AESTHETICALLY LOOK AT EVERYTHING AND “SEE” THAT WHAT IS ACTUALLY CONTAINED WITHIN THE FILM IS DONE WELL. AND THUS, IT BECOMES SURPRISINGLY EASY TO “SAY” THAT IT IS WELL-MADE FILM.
BUT BECAUSE OF THE CINEMATOGRAPHY FLAWS, YOU ABSOLUTELY DO NOT CONNECT TO IT AS WELL AS YOU SHOULD. IT IS CONSTANTLY TRYING TO PUSH YOU AWAY FROM ALL THE THINGS THAT IT DOES WELL.
AND THAT IS TRULY HEARTBREAKING.
BECAUSE EVERYONE DESERVES A GREAT LES MIS.
The greatest crime about Hooper’s Les Mis is that he adapted a popular, even populist, rock opera into a blockbuster film that doesn’t know how to make or let his audience feel. Hooper forgot along the way that a movie musical’s most crucial element (increasingly so as the genre dwindles) is that it must teach cinema-goers the language of watching a musical, and it should do so without the audience realizing. Hooper failed on both counts.
There’s something about a Broadway show that continues to compel — even as its script remains predictable, its execution relatively consistent — because the experience of its liveness rewards repeated viewing. It’s an experience, much more than cinema, best consumed collectively. It’s an act of faith. If newcomers don’t know how to believe, they’ll learn, if not first from the show, then from those watching it alongside them. Rewatching a musical deepens one’s understanding of it, adds to its inflections, reaffirms its power. This is, as far as I know, how faith works. To watch a musical is both to feel, see, and know that what we believe still exists. No matter the musical’s narrative time period, a live viewing always brings the show to now, and now is often when I need it most. I’ve seen Les Mis live, have rewatched those famed recordings of its anniversary concerts (always live), have acted in it; and it’s enduringly different each time. Everyone does deserve a great Les Misérables and I think even Hooper realizes that, though, in his, there was and is less room to dream. But what is the force of all those prior Les Mis’s we’ve stored up? That the first time through Hooper’s, I still cried.
Best Pictures is a short series about this year’s Academy Award-nominated films.