Sunday, January 6, 2013

ABANDONED THEATER: Alternate Dimensions, Where Everyone Sings


Musicals. They are in a genre that is love-hate for the most part. Characters spontaneously break out into song to explain their feelings to the audience, like a blunter version of a Shakespearean soliloquy, except where others can join. Tom Hooper, director of the overrated/nice The King’s Speech [1], has a new movie out and it is not only a musical, but one of the most popular musicals of the last 30 years: Les Miserables. I—yes I’m going to be writing this review in the 1st person because in this case it is unavoidable—am going to attempt to write a review with two purposes. First, I want to give the point of view of someone who doesn’t like musicals—me—and give as objective of a review as possible. Also, I want to meditate on the genre as a whole, and its most interesting aspects, that people spontaneously break into song in perilous scenarios.

I have to give Hooper credit: the man took risks with his version of Les Miserables, and quite a few of them paid off. Also, he has interesting views on musicals in general. In a director’s roundtable for the L.A. Times [ii], he said that, to paraphrase, musicals exist in an alternate dimension where people express themselves through song. That thought fascinates me more than anything the movie could pull of, or did, though I had it in mind when I saw the film later. Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, and of course the wonderful Anne Hathaway (among many others) all exist in a world where their frustrations are expressed to the audience through song. The actors sang live, with three cameras panned to their faces, so Hooper and the editor could pick the best shots later. The musical accompaniment was live as well, allowing the actors to perform at any tempo they wished. This adds a sense of reality to the ludicrousness of singing when one is sulking or even dying. In the theatre, actors often sing to live accompaniments, but in films, this is rare.  The actors (or singing doubles) are recorded in a studio before the scene, and the actor lip-syncs. This allows the directors to polish the scenes, but Hooper said his actors would lose flexibility. And of all the strange choices he opted to use in this musical, this is the one that pays off. But it also creates a weird world, where I actually believe these characters exist and sing to communicate.

Les Miserables is a musical, but it also acts as an opera. Over 80% of the dialogue is sung. These aren’t occasional songs; they are throughout. Hugh Jackman is often sing-talking, where he kind of sings in a conversational speaking voice, a bit out of tune. These scenes are meant to elicit emotion by showing how miserable the characters are. People who are knowledgeable and love musicals might wish for a more traditional musical experience, especially if they are fans of the stage musical. But as an outsider, I was more intrigued by this gritty, “realistic” style.

The movie didn’t live up to its premise, though. The cinematography was simply terrible at times. They opted to use all of their close-ups in the final film, instead of wider-angled shots. The big problem with the close-ups was that the actors were not centered in the shot a lot of the time. When Anne Hathaway performs her incredible and tearful version of “I Dreams a Dream,” Hooper and his director of photography decide to position her on the right-hand side of the frame, where she occasionally moves out of the shot when she’s acting. A centered shot would have given the audience more intimacy with Hathaway’s performance, as opposed to distracting from it. Hathaway still hits the song out of the park with plenty of earned emotion through the musical sentimentality. Also, some of the performances fell flat. Jackman and Crowe were not bad—yes even Russell Crowe, who was miscast as he tried to sing a baritone, out of his natural range, and failed, isn’t that bad—but they were also not impressive. Eddie Redmayne was either tearful, or full of hope, with no in between, but his character was likely written this way. Hathaway was much the same, but she drew the audience in with her incredible voice and emotive face. Others were decent, but no one truly looked comfortable with the material, save the ever mischievous Sacha Baron Cohen, who is always comfortable in the material.

The movie’s biggest flaw is that it is too long. Like other films of similar lengths this year, The Dark Knight Rises, Cloud Atlas, and Django Unchained, this one feels the longest by at least an hour. Much of the middle section bogs down, especially after SPOILER Hathaway’s character, Fontine, dies. There are some memorable tunes, such as Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s innkeeper song (“Master of the House”) as well as the rebellious frenchmen’s “Do You Hear The People Sing” but many of the songs amount to characters just having conversations in song, without a tune to grab on to. This helps the realism, but it does hurt some of the memorability. The last, and possibly, biggest flaw of the film is that it focuses too much on the personal strives of Jean Valjean and his melodramatic family, and not on the bigger, sociological picture. Hooper is not interested in the politics, though, and that is not the movie we received. So for these reasons, and with an asterisk since I do not claim to know the first thing about what actually makes a musical good. . .

I give Les Miserables a strong 6 out of 10.


But let’s return to what Hooper said. These characters live in an alternate dimension where people express themselves through song. Literally, not symbolically. So Jean Valjean, when he buys groceries, sings, “I’d like a loaf of bread, good sir!” Or if he is making love, he sings, “Oh god, my love!” Or if he is constipated, he sings, “Come out, foul beast, and have me be rid of you!” This is a world where this happens, off screen. You can imagine Javert (Crowe) sleeping, snoring the words, “zzzzJeanzzzzz! zzzzzValzzzzz! zzzzJeanzzzzz!” Or, when married, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Redmayne) find out that they really aren’t made for one another, and Cosette serves Marius, “You have been served, good sir! Now give me a divorce, good sir! You are a bore, good sir! You also never put the seat down after you piss, good sir!”

All of these are in the tune of “The Confrontation” between Valjean and Javert.

These are minute, at times, details that are sung. And they are serious events in these characters’ lives that are sung. But what if this applied to other times, to other films? What if we, dear reader, lived in a world where we sang our hearts out to communicate to one another, and we sang to ourselves and imagined audiences to formulate our own personal thoughts, like in journals, but outward for everyone to hear. We’re not all good singers, but we are all singers.

Would people who sang well have better positions in life, or would that not matter?  Would people sing-off instead of physically fight, or would they sing while they fought. Would congress pass or veto bills by singing their opinions? Would there be non-musicals on the screen or on stage calls Talkicals? Would the radio be filled with songs, or with spoken-word pieces?  That last one: it would probably still be filled with songs.

These thoughts entertain me more than the movie, because this is a world I’d love to see, through this specific lens. This is a world would be interested in seeing on the screen, where characters have to fulfill minute details through song, and have a director self-aware of this fact.

Let’s see what happens when the rest of this year’s Oscar-favorite films, like Les Miserables, which will probably be nominated for 8-14 Oscars, depending on how in-love with Hooper the Academy is. 



A racist Democrat: “Why should we pass this bill?! We need our slaves!”

Lincoln, in his beautiful tenor voice, “Because I am clothed in immense power!”

His cabinet: “He is clothed in immense power indeed!”


Tony Mendes (Affleck) turns to John Chambers (Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Arkin) and tells them his plan: “We are going to go into Iran. There we will execute an elaborate plan! There we will pretend to be / Yes, we will be in a movie!  A science fiction movie! We will save the embassy with help FROM THE CANADIANS!”

Siegel: “Well to that, I say this: Ar, ar ar ar ar (Siegel stops for a moment, to catch his breath, because he’s a human not a machine, dammit) Argo-fuck-yourself!”

Zero Dark Thirty (I haven’t seen ZD30)

Bin Laden, dead, sings regardless: “I am dead.”
His dead terrorist friends, also dead: “He’s dead! He-sa He-sa He-sa so so dead! He-sa He-sa He-sa so so dead!” (To the tune to “No Tip” in The Comedy [iii]).

Silver Linings Playbook

Pat (Bradley Cooper): “I’m happy!” Reads Hemingway. “Now I’m angry!”
Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence): “You’re crazy!”

Pat: “No you’re crazy!”

Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro): “You’re both crazy, now shut up as I watch the Eagles game!”

Everyone laughs and makes up. Problem solved.

Life of Pi

Pi: “Richard Parker. I love you, Richard Parker. To me, you’re more than imaginary! To me, you’re the best tiger friend a boy could ask for.”

Tiger: “Pi. I’m hungry, Pi. To me, you’re just a steak-to-be! To me, you’re one sneaky boy who always gets away from filling me. . . my tummy!”

It starts raining.

Pi: “Richard Parker. I love you, Richard Parker. To me…”

The tiger eats Pi. He didn’t like his singing, I guess.

Django Unchained

Candie: “You are a good for nuthin’. . .”

Django shoots Candie. Blood splashes everywhere.

Django turns to Schultz, and sings: “He was racist and he had bad teeth! I couldn’t help it!”

Schultz shrugs and smiles. Later, he and Broomhilda share a song sung in German about Siegfried.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Hushpuppy rips open a crab.

Chorus: “BEAST IT!”

        Hushpuppy catches a catfish with her dad.
Chorus: “BEAST IT!”

Hushpuppy punches her dad in the chest. He collapses.

Chorus: “BEAST IT!”

Hushpuppy flexes in front of her dad. She has bigger muscles.

Chorus: “BEAST IT!”

Hushpuppy cries because her mother died long ago and she is sad.
Chorus: “. . .”

Then her father dies.

Chorus: “. . .”

         Hushpuppy, after her father dies, burns his body.

         Chorus: “BEAST IT!”


Husband: “I do this because I love you.”

Wife: “Mff mfff mff mfff”

Pigeon: “That’s not what I meant!”

Moonrise Kingdom

          A pre-teen boy and pre-teen girl dance half-naked to a French song on a beach. They awkwardly kiss and she makes an awkward mention to something “hard.”

Both, in duet: “This is going to be awkward when we talk about it in 10 years!”


007 to M: “I grew up here. This is SKYFALLLLL! AS IT CRUM-BALLS! [iv]”
M, sings softly: “I didn’t know you were a soprano.”

The Master

“I’m gonna get you . . .  on a small boat to china.”

Wait, that one actually happens.

Hollywood, get on it!

[i] And Academy Award winning. I should mention that, too.

1 comment:

  1. BTW, here are my Oscar nomination predictions:

    1. Lincoln
    2. Zero Dark Thirty
    3. Les Miserables
    4. Argo
    5. Life of Pi
    6. Silver Linings Playbook
    7. Django Unchained
    8. Beasts of the Southern Wild
    9. Amour
    10. Moonrise Kingdom

    1. Katherine Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty
    2. Steven Spielberg, Lincoln
    3. Ben Affleck, Argo
    4. Ang Lee, Life of Pi
    5. Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

    1. Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln
    2. Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook
    3. Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
    4. John Hawkes, The Sessions
    5. Denzel Washington, Flight

    1. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty
    2. Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
    3. Marion Cotillard, Rust and Bone
    4. Naomi Watts, The Impossible
    5. Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

    1. Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
    2. Sally Field, Lincoln
    3. Helen Hunt, The Sessions
    4. Maggie Grace, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
    5. Judi Dench, Skyfall

    1. Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln
    2. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master
    3. Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
    4. Alan Arkin, Argo
    5. Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained

    1. Zero Dark Thirty, Marc Boal
    2. The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson
    3. Moonrise Kingdom, Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson
    4. Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino
    5. Amour, Michael Haneke

    1. Lincoln, Tony Kushner
    2. Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell
    3. Argo, Chris Terrio
    4. Life of Pi, David Magee
    5. Perks of Being A Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

    1. Frankenweenie
    2. Brave
    3. Wreck-It Ralph
    4. Paranorman
    5. The Rabbi’s Cat

    1. Amour, Austria
    2. The Intouchables, France
    3. A Royal Affair, Denmark
    4. No, Chile
    5. Beyond The Hills, Romania

    1. Life of Pi
    2. The Master
    3. Skyfall
    4. Lincoln
    5. Zero Dark Thirty

    1. Lincoln
    2. Anna Karenina
    3. Les Miserables
    4. Life of Pi
    5. Skyfall

    1. Les Miserables
    2. Anna Karenina
    3. Lincoln
    4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
    5. Mirror, Mirror

    1. Zero Dark Thirty
    2. Argo
    3. Les Miserables
    4. Lincoln
    5. Life of Pi

    1. Lincoln
    2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
    3. Men In Black 3

    1. Lincoln
    2. Argo
    3. Life of Pi
    4. Anna Karenina
    5. Beasts of the Southern Wild

    1. Skyfall – Adele, Skyfall
    2. Suddenly – Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables
    3. Ancora Qui – Ennio Morricone, Django Unchained
    4. Learn Me Right – Birdy / Mumford & Sons, Brave
    5. Touch The Sky – Julie Folis, Brave

    1. Zero Dark Thirty
    2. The Dark Knight Rises
    3. The Avengers
    4. Skyfall
    5. Django Unchained

    1. Zero Dark Thirty
    2. Les Miserables
    3. Django Unchained
    4. Skyfall
    5. The Dark Knight Rises

    1. Life of Pi
    2. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
    3. Prometheus
    4. The Avengers
    5. The Dark Knight Rises

    1. Searching For Sugarman
    2. How To Survive A Plague
    3. Bully
    4. The Gatekeepers
    5. This Is Not A Film