The long-awaited film adaptation of Les Misérables had a huge Christmas opening, raking in over $30 million since Christmas day and generating a considerable amount of Oscar buzz. One aspect of the film that has created a lot of curiosity is the fact that the singing by the film's actors (which includes Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe) was recorded live as the film was shot instead of the more traditional method of recording the vocals in a studio, then having the actors lip-synch it on camera.
With only a few exceptions, the lip-synching aspect of movie musicals has always annoyed me, so I had high hopes for this new technique, which involved the actors wearing tiny wireless earpieces so they could sing along with a piano player performing the music beyond earshot of filming. However, it seems that filming and recording singing this way resulted in a shooting style that made me feel like I was being attacked by giants trying to deafen me. Watch my ReThink Review of Les Misérables below (transcript following).
When I watch most movie musicals, I'm often distracted by the fact that I know I'm just watching lip-synching. That's not saying that the actors didn't actually sing the songs, but they did it in a studio, and what I'm watching is them singing along to that pre-recorded track. But Tom Hooper's version of Les Misérables has done something new by recording the actors actually singing on set as they listen to the music through tiny wireless earpieces. That means that when you see the actors singing on screen, you're actually seeing and hearing them sing. This should technically solve my lip-synching gripe, but it actually caused some other problems, which made Les Misérables, at over two and a half hours long, a tough movie to get through.
Based on the smash Broadway musical based on a five-volume novel by Victor Hugo, Les Misérables takes place in 19th century France and mostly follows Jean Valjean, a peasant played by Hugh Jackman who skips parole after being imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread to feed a hungry child. He vows vengeance on his cruel prison guard, Javert (played by Russell Crowe), and heads to Paris where he manages to turn his life around, creating a new identity and becoming a respected factory owner.
But Javert, now an inspector, is still pursuing Valjean, complicating Valjean's efforts to be the adoptive father of a little girl named Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, one of Valjean's factory workers (played by Anne Hathaway) who dies after losing her job and turning to prostitution. Cosette eventually grows to be a teenager (played by Amanda Seyfried) and falls in love with a revolutionary named Marius (played by Eddie Redmayne) as the French Revolution gains steam. That's the main story, though there are lots of subplots and supporting characters.
The singing, for the most part, is good, with the exception of Crowe, who doesn't have a strong voice or a clear delivery and often seems to be struggling to get all the words out. But the real problem is the way the singing is shot, which I'm guessing has to do with the decision to record the singing live on set.
To preserve the actors' voices, many of the songs are shot in long takes, often with handheld cameras following the actors around so they wouldn't have to sing a song too many times. And to get good sound recordings, I'm guessing the production needed some serious microphones that would have to be pretty close to the actors. So to keep the microphones out of the shots, a lot of the singing is filmed in close-ups, with the microphones probably just out of frame.
The result is that for much of the movie, you have an actor's giant head belting out songs at high volume RIGHT IN YOUR FACE. This works a few times, particularly when Hathaway tearfully sings one of the musical's signature songs, "I Dreamed A Dream", and you see the true potential of this recording technique as you experience great singing paired with first-rate, close-up acting, which you don't get in live musicals due to the audience's distance from the actors.
But most of the time, it's more like giants yelling at you -- and remember, Les Mis is two and a half hours long and almost all the dialogue is sung. Near the end, when a character came on screen, I would say to myself, "Please don't sing. Please don't sing," which is not the reaction you'd hope for in a musical. Another side effect is that because of all of the close-ups, you often don't see actors reacting to each other in the same frame, and sometimes can't even tell where they are in relation to each other.
As I said, I'm not a big movie musical fan, and near the end of the film, a lot of women around me were sniffling. So maybe I'm just dead inside. But I feel like the makers of Les Misérables attempted to solve a problem few people other than myself even consider a problem, and by doing so, created more problems that made the movie unpleasant to watch.