5 Musicals That Got Right What Les Mis Got Wrong

Les_Miserables_Movie_Wallpaper_1600x900Seven months later and I’m still reeling from one of the most disastrous musicals I’ve ever seen on screen. Maybe I’m making too big a deal of it, but it stuns me that Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables could be such a cluster explosion of awfulness. It got me to thinking, What exactly did they do wrong here? And what musicals got right what this got so, so wrong? I thought I would make it easy and break it down to five key components of Hooper’s film and the list five films that exemplify those key components. But first, what Les Misérables got wrong:

  • Politics
    • Here, Les Misérables the movie is not entirely to be blamed for its shaky, lazy politics. Its setting in the second French Revolution (specifically, the June Revolution) has always been very poorly illustrated by only a couple of songs and some vague characterization from that of the members of the rebellion. Less like Shakespeare’s ability to have two storylines running parallel in his plays, one being central to the plot and the other working as political subtext, Les Misérables has always been rather unbalanced, especially in comparison to its seminal source material. Victor Hugo was kind of like a French Charles Dickens in terms of his desire for scope and social commentary. The 1500 word novel of course will have streamlining, but despite the desire to keep much of the political nature of the novel in the musical, it was dropped save for the aforementioned songs and general “setting”. In a cinematic adaptation, one would hope that this would be improved in a kind of de facto way: more symbolic imagery in the mise-en-scene, the ability to better and more strongly convey the political nature of the story, etc. But, it doesn’t do that. Aside from the grimy nature of the set pieces, the politics of the musical give way to the romance, and of course they do.
  • Adaptation
    • A theatrical adaptation of a stage show or musical is not supposed to be a carbon copy of said musical. It is, in essence, supposed to be an interpretation that is, ostensibly, supposed to broaden the audience and do that by expanding on subtext and character. You could call Les Misérables an “adaptation” insofar that Tom Hooper directed it and its period piece style is “authentic”. But it feels nothing more than a filmed version of the Concert Les Misérables. It doesn’t so much represent a vision, just a version. Thinking about this made me wonder: generally, when one goes to the theater, they usually do a certain amount of research on what they’re going to see. Even if it’s to look up the plot or the actors, there’s a certain amount of preparation. However, when one goes to see a movie, beyond the title, a lot of people go in blind to see a film. Film doesn’t need as much prior context as theater does, but what preparation one doesn’t do is usually aided by what is in the film. With Les Misérables, not only is the politics of the play and the book gone, any context regarding the actual setting is gone. When people continually say that Les Misérables takes place during the French Revolution, I feel like there’s something wrong (with both the stage and the screen). Character background isn’t expanded upon, and the weird including of five lines of dialogue is jarring and inessential. You either have some dialogue, to better establish character dynamics, or none, to remain true to the original intentions. But that doesn’t mean you can’t better establish those dynamics in other ways, such as direction or camera movement. Nonetheless, Les MIs continues to fail in this area.
  • Cinematography
    • Everyone knows about the cinematography of Les Misérables. If the audience isn’t looking down the throat of Anne Hathaway, they’re on the side of their heads in an unnecessary Dutch angle, or walking around drunkenly without the aid of a SteadiCam. It’s not exactly that the cinematography made me clench my fists with rage in the theater; it’s that it lacked real consistency. If you’re going to have lousy camerawork, at least make it consistent. Instead, Hooper employs a number of his usual tricks, but uses others to form a strange amalgamations of truly unpleasant compositions. Because why have the actor in the center of the screen when you can create asymmetrical balance? And Les Misérables does not have to be inherently pretty, period piece or not. It just mas to make the images mean something beyond hackneyed emotional manipulation via close ups.
  • Music
    • It’s odd that Les Misérables essentially is an opera but features some of the least operatic and grand tracks one has ever heard, “On My Own” and “I Dreamed a Dream” notwithstanding. There’s no dialogue in the original musical, favoring a treatment where everything is sung. Not completely unusual by any means, but even Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera (on Broadway) features far more worthy tunes than this. In an effort to create musical motifs by using the same melodies and tunes for multiple songs and creating a crescendo of emotion in a track that populates the middle of the film/musical, what is lost is originality and inventiveness. Sure, it’s clever, but that cleverness wears off when you’ve heard the same thing with different lyrics about twenty minutes earlier.
  • Editing
    • The editing is horrific. It has no sense of special place or coherency. It reduces the love story in the latter half of the film to five reverse shots. That is a problem. A lot of the editing problems actually fall into adaptation issues. There are flashes of scenes which are used as bridges or transitions which simply do not work because of the poor editing. It is disastrous.

Now, what about the films that gets these things right? Well, here we go:


  • Politics
    • Across the Universe (2007) | Directed by Julie Taymor
    • Polarizing though the film may be, coming off to some as a silly, frivolous work stupidly tying the songs of the Beatles together in a knock offish story and to others as inventive, the film is steeped in the politics of “its” time. I use quotations because, while the film was released in 2007, its story is stuck in the late 1960s. But it doesn’t slam the viewer in the face with these politics; instead it uses its music as a guide through what the politics were at that point in the counterculture. The Beatles music acts as a way to map out emotions, ideas, and, yes, politics in the film, and it does so in a fairly inventive way. “I Am the Walrus”, as sung by Bono, isn’t merely a trippy song perhaps about the duality of humanity, but it works as a trippy song about the duality of politics and of “being”. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” turns into a track about the jingoism of the Draft and “Helter Skelter” becomes an anthemic riot song.


  • Adaptation
    • Cabaret (1974) | Directed by Bob Fosse
    • The screen adaptation of Cabaret, which swept the Oscars in 1974 and was directed by Broadway legend Bob Fosse, isn’t the same as the musical it’s derived from. It jumps a couple steps back from what the musical was derived from and becomes a more seething, a sexier, and a darker morality tale more closely related to the book by Christopher Isherwood I Am a Camera. Sally Bowles becomes American and while she was always the focal point of the play, her blissful obliviousness to what’s going on in the world is expanded upon, not only in story, but also in song. Capitalism is expounded up and her desires to be rich and famous in the infamous “Money, Money” (replacing “The Money Song”), and Kander and Ebb amp up the sinister soundtrack. Joel Grey’s Emcee seems all the more insidious, and the other men in the film become more dynamic characters. Of course, the best part of the film will always be the contrast and juxtaposition of what’s on stage and what’s in real life.


  • Cinematography
    • The Sound of Music (1965) | Directed by Robert Wise
    • Unabashedly saccharine though it is, The Sound of Music is gorgeous to watch. Shot in 70mm film, there are some truly outstanding images captured in the musical, from the Malickian twirling on the hill to the “16 Going on 17) scene in the rain. It is undoubtedly one of the most gorgeous musicals to ever see. Filmed partly on location and partly in studio, there’s a perfect mixture of the real and totally unreal. Vibrant colors abound, and if you pick up the recent Blu-ray release, there are fine details that burst out. But the cinematography is, one could suppose, a manifestation of how vapid the musical is. Pleasurable, yes, but sort of sterile. It’s nothing more than the idealist nature of the musical and of the audience. It’s a spectator.


  • Music
    • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) | Directed by Tim Burton
    • Of course I had to have Sondheim on the list. Next to Kander and Ebb and Cole Porter, Sondheim is one of the greatest composer/lyricists that ever lived. In a similar Dickensian fashion, Sondheim adapted a penny dreadful into a black comedy, with some of the most astounding music to boot. While Sondheim’s music certainly underlines the economic strife of the Industrial Age in England, it rips into the heart and soul of both the audience and the characters. “My Friends” is a doleful, disturbing confirmation of vengeance and depression (the title character is singing to a pair of razor blades), “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” acts as exposition in a darkly funny way, and “A Little Priest” is the comic relief. This latter song is probably my favorite from the musical; Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett speculate as to what people would taste like if they were baked into her meat pies. Sondheim is notorious for writing hard to sing music (just check out his other masterpiece Company), and Sweeney Todd is no exception. It’s complex, lyrically, musically, and best of all, emotionally.


  • Editing
    • Singin’ in the Rain (1952
    • I guess it isn’t the first thing one jumps to when one thinks of the greatest Hollywood musical ever made, but it certainly is one of the most important aspects. Unlike the music video driven editing of recently musicals, from Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge! to Rob Marshall’s Chicago; Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, and editor Adrienne Fazan knew that long takes are best. Quick cuts rob the audience of the ability to drink of the artistry of the dance, but the glorious long shots of “Moses Supposes”, “Singin’ in the Rain” (which was supposedly done in one take), and “Good Morning” prove that seeing the whole thing is the best. In each frame and each shot, as it goes on for minutes at a time, you can see the perfecting o the dancing and the singing. They sure knew how to wow them and, of course, Make ‘Em Laugh.

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