Monday, March 25, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?: Differences of Opinion on Les Miserables GUEST POST by GINA!

And now.... a special guest post by our friend Gina.....

Every time the film version of Les Misérables comes back into the news—with the Academy Awards, and then again with the recent DVD/Blu-ray release—the controversy starts up all over again. The controversy, that is, over the quality of the singing. I confess I’ve lost my temper and got into Facebook brawls over it, which is neither mature nor dignified. Nor is it sensible, because after all, taste is subjective. Why should I care if other people hate what I love?

I guess it’s just that I have a really difficult time understanding how there can be such wide differences of opinion over this. Why, I wonder, can’t some of my friends hear the beauty that I hear? And what makes it all the more confusing is that I know they’re wondering, why can’t I hear the ugliness that they hear? Am I hearing something in this music that just isn’t there?

It’s not that there’s a lot of disparity among us when it comes to musical knowledge. I’ve been playing the piano for more than 30 years, and singing in a choir for about 15, and I minored in music in college. A lot of the people I’ve brawled—er, discussed this with have similar backgrounds.

But I have musically talented friends who love the movie and musically talented friends who loathe it. My former choir director/music minister (who’s also my piano teacher of many years) was in raptures over it; some of the choir members who had sat under his direction for decades couldn’t bear it.

In other words, it doesn’t seem to be one’s level of musical intelligence or education that makes the difference.

Nor does it seem to make much difference that the film’s cast was full of trained singers with extensive musical theater experience, including Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, and quite a few more. We’re not talking about a film that went for name value and sex appeal over vocal talent, like the regrettable Phantom of the Opera adaptation from 2004.

One can reasonably argue that a particular key should have been changed, or that a particular singer could have had better technique, or that Russell Crowe wasn’t the best choice for Javert. (Even he didn’t bother me all that much, though of course it would have been nicer to have a Roger Allam type with a big baritone!) But to claim that the film was one big vocal disaster, as some do, just doesn’t make any sense.

In the final analysis, I think it all comes down to what any given viewer expected and wanted from the movie.

Director Tom Hooper, in interviews, made it very clear what he was going for: a gritty and realistic film version of a musical drama. And with that come certain requirements and limitations, because film is a different medium from theater, with a vocabulary of its own. Onstage, no matter what a musical is about, you want powerful singers who can project to the back row; in a film, especially if you’re portraying “the wretched of the earth,” you probably don’t. On the stage, Fantine can hold everyone spellbound by belting out her tale of woe; in a film, honestly, that probably would have seemed a bit ludicrous. Fantine singing quietly and brokenly to herself, as we saw Hathaway do, is what you need in a film.

And so it goes for the other performances as well. We’re watching the poor and sick, the people beaten up by life; or we’re watching exuberant, naïve young revolutionaries, “schoolboys [who] didn’t last the night.” We’re watching people living lives of desperate urgency, and to make them all seem real on film, Hooper decided, we needed something raw and realistic in the quality of their singing, something you wouldn’t find on a stage. By taking talented singers and having them sing in a non-theatrical way, I think he hit just the balance he needed to hit.

If someone went into the movie theater expecting and desiring an experience that was pure musical theater, with beautiful voices soaring to the rafters, I guess I can see why he or she would be disappointed. Of course, for those who found the film experience less than they expected, there are always the CDs and DVDs of the various stage versions. But because I believe there’s value and beauty in both the theatrical and the cinematic ways of telling this particular musical story, I’m glad we have both.

Gina Dalfonzo is editor of and Dickensblog. Her singing voice sounds best when surrounded by dozens of other voices.


Christmas with CWG said...

For me (someone not a huge fan of the movie...) I think it comes down to the director's decision to shoot most of the big songs in such extreme close-up. "I Dreamed a Dream" was beautiful, but ultimately uncomfortable. It's like the scope of what we saw didn't fit the scope of the music, and we were bombarded with these images of ... singing. And I kinda loved Russel Crowe :)

Charity said...

I think the cast did a pretty admirable job, but it was unwise not to let them sing in their own vocal range -- I really do cringe a lot when Jackman tries to hit the right notes in the prayer on the barricades. But it doesn't bother me all that much.