I still remember the day that I found out that no one was really singing in the movie version of West Side Story (and learned about dubbing) — not going to lie, my five-year-old heart broke a little bit.
Eventually I got over it. After a while, I was able to still watch and enjoy West Side Story for all the fabulous dancing and Sondheim lyrics, and beautiful (even if piped-in) music. It will forever be one of my favorite films of all time. It was groundbreaking and brilliant. I’m not going to lie though, it was never quite the same. I will never watch it without wondering (or googling now) who is really singing, wondering about the acting and character in the voice that is coming from a different human than who we see on screen.
Julie Andrews movies also helped me through this difficult time (thank goodness they actually always let her do her own singing, she’s a goddess).
Cut to the present, sometimes even when we are talking about the recording industry and mainstream pop music, my mind often wanders to issues of authentic performance and recording, singing and acting. The difference between good mixing, capturing something “true” in performance during recording and studio flattening mediocritizing waste.
There is even more of an emphasis on this with movie musicals in my mind. Which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy nearly ALL of them. There have been some really fun and even great movie musicals over the years, but I do notice and critique choices in the recording. Sometimes choices that don’t quite fit the performance choices on set.
So why is Tom Hooper’s Les Mis a game changer? I truly believe this one is different from anything we’ve ever seen.
With Anne Hathaway’s raw and wrenching version of “I Dreamed a Dream” in the first trailer and now this extended first look (an in-depth explanation of how they are approaching the entire concept of music on screen) — without even seeing the entire film, it’s becoming obvious that Tom Hooper (and a phenomenal cast) are doing something amazing by recording all the vocals live on set during filming.
Some of my favorite films and in my opinion, some of the best films ever made, are particularly good adaptations of plays. Some directors have an absolute gift for taking the sheer power of the stage and putting it on screen without allowing the screen to diffuse it at all – to remove us from the impact.
Mike Nichols has done it a few times, I’m not sure anyone can watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf without feeling as deeply unsettled as you would sitting in a theatre. His miniseries version of Angels in America is the definitive one as far as I’m concerned. And Closer was brilliant and uncomfortable to watch, many people didn’t realize that was an adaptation, but I knew right away even though I hadn’t been familiar with the play before. There was something different in the writing, the cadence of the dialogue and even the blocking on set.
Good adaptations of plays to movies are theatrical in a noticeably different way, making the best of the dramatic elements and taking the perfect amount of advantage of the medium.
Great film can do many things that great theater does very differently and I appreciate them both in different ways. The fusion of the two however, in a great adaptation achieves something compelling emotionally that I’m having difficult finding the words for. It’s something that lives in my gut, something somehow related to being a heartbroken 5 year old watching “West Side Story” with new eyes and struggling to find the truest part of what I fell in love with there.
I guess it might be a bit premature to say for sure that Tom Hooper’s version of Les Misérables will change everything or anything, but I feel that he’s doing something similar to what Mike Nichols (and many other talented directors and casts) did to bring some of the most brilliant plays to the screen and he’s doing it with one of the most brilliant and evocative musicals of all time.
That alone is something interesting and admirable — and also what makes the trailer and the extended look so compelling even as stand-alone pieces. (The cinematography and editing should also be noted here, because it’s pretty damn spectacular.)
So even if it’s not a mainstream cinema game-changer, for people who grew up loving Les Mis or love movie musicals or theater in general, it probably already is.
For those of us who still cry in dark theaters when the tension breaks or someone’s voice cracks at the right moment, or someone hits an incredible note or an orchestra swells. Or sometimes just watching videos on youtube of Bernadette Peters singing “Unexpected Song”… (So admittedly, it doesn’t take much to make me cry, ok?)
This film is not just adapting a work, it’s being created as a hybrid, it’s is changing the process of a production in order to access the truest parts of the characters AND the music simultaneously.
If you read all this, the entire very confessional extended em0-rant, and have been getting what I’m saying from West Side Story on — 1. Thanks for sticking with me. 2. Bottom line: this movie is being made for people like us. AND 3. That’s so incredibly exciting.