Sunday, January 13, 2013

5 Things I Didn't Notice About Les Miserables The First Time I Saw It

Yesterday, I went to see the film version of Les Miserables for the second time. I went with my friends Bronwyn Green, Ginny (whose full name I won't put here because I don't know her pseudonym, but whose manuscript is currently under consideration at Astrea Press, so cross your fingers for her) and Temple Hogan (who is my pal and also my grandma, so you should buy her books about pirates getting down). I had seen it previously with my husband and my friend Jill, so seeing it a second time gave me a chance to notice some things I hadn't noticed before:

  1. The songs in the stage version are in the wrong order. In the play, the rousing number most associated with the show (and which should probably be adopted as the French national anthem) comes after "Red and Black" and before "A Heart Full of Love," when Marius goes to meet Cossette for the first time. The first time I saw the movie, when "Red and Black" finished and "Do You Hear The People Sing" didn't happen, my heart was broken. You see, some totally freak left the song off the soundtrack album. I don't know who made that decision, but they're stupid. Anyway, since it's not on the album, I assumed it had been cut from the show. I fumed through "On My Own," and "One Day More," which were also in the wrong order, certain they had ruined the movie by leaving it out. But then, "Do You Hear The People Sing" happened. And it happened as an active part of the beginning of the protest. Holy balls, did that make the song more effective. The second time around, when I wasn't furious at the apparent exclusion of the song, I was able to appreciate that the song was probably always in the wrong place in the musical. Another song whose order changed was "I Dreamed A Dream." Again, the change made the song even more moving to the audience. Is it more effective to listen to Fantine lamenting the horror of her life after she's lost her hair and her teeth and resorted to dangerous 19th century street prostitution to save her child, or right before that happens, as in the musical? Now, when I think of the musical, I think that the songs are in the wrong order, the correct order being the one presented in the movie.
  2. Russell Crowe's singing isn't actually as bad as I thought it was. Okay, he's no Phillip Quast or Norm Lewis. But the first time I saw the movie, I wanted to cry (not just from, you know, the unrelenting sadness of the narrative or the piercing hope that the human condition will somehow improve and we'll all become Jean Valjean) because they fucked up the casting for Javert so badly. He couldn't sing. He was wooden and unsure of himself. In the car on the ride home, my husband vehemently defended Crowe: "He knew he couldn't sing! He knew he was the worst singer there, and it showed. And it made me like him, because he was trying to win me over." When I watched it a second time, I realized that Crowe's wooden, unsure acting was actually helpful the characterization. And his singing wasn't as bad as I remembered. Yes, it was amateurish, but it was no where near as painful as listening to Hugh Jackman struggle through "Bring Him Home," which brings me to...
  3. They probably could have brought some of the vocals down a few keys. Back when Madonna was cast as Eva Peron in Evita, musical fans ripped her to shreds over the fact that she couldn't handle the mezzo-soprano score, and some of the most famous numbers had been transposed down to accomodate her alto voice. Then the film came out, the changes were barely noticeable, and the adaptation was a critical success. The overall structure of the score wasn't obliterated by the changes, and a lesson should have been learned by everyone: no one wants to listen to an Actor Who Sings trying (and failing) to hit notes that are out of their workable range. And yet there we are, watching Hugh Jackman visibly strain to hit the impossible counter-tenor notes in "Bring Him Home." An apocryphal theatre story holds that the song, whose high A comes, brutally, midway through the second act of a three hours plus show, was originally written lower, but that Colm Wilkinson decided to take the song up just because he had the stamina. The school edition of the musical changes the key to accomodate the untried teen voice, so why not take it down a little bit for Jackman, rather than make us listen to him juuuuuust barely hit the notes in an uncomfortable, pinchy voice?
  4. As an adult, I found it harder to have sympathy for the rebels when they've just ruined a funeral. Having been to more than one ruined funeral in my time, I have to say that my opinion on the rebels has changed. Did they really have to hijack a hearse? I get that Lamarque is a symbol of their cause, but what about his grieving family? And yes, this is exactly how the Parisian June Rebellion went down in 1832, but somehow reading about it in the novel or historical accounts makes it all seem rather grand and romantic, but seeing a bunch of handsome Hollywood types swarming over Lamarque's cortege made me go, "Hey. That's not nice. Bunch of jerks." If you disagree, just imagine how you would feel if you were grieving a loved one, and some dude in an Adam Ant jacket up and hijacked his dead body while singing about politics and discontent due to a cholera epidemic.
  5. WTF is that random cow doing? Shortly after the funeral ruiners make their move, we see the construction of barricades in the city streets. Common people throw furniture from their windows to aid the rebels, and in one shot, for some reason, hand to god, there is a fucking cow standing there. It actually appears to be a Red and White Holstein, and it looks super fucking confused. We never see it again. So, knowing the expense and danger of having an animal that big on a movie set... why was it included? Just to show us that someone owned a cow in the city? Why on earth was that cow there? Keep in mind, it's highly unlikely that the cow just wandered into a movie set. Someone actually had to look at the sweeping epic of this musical and go, "You know what's missing? Less than a full second of cow."
This might sound like I was unhappy with the film version overall. Actually, I couldn't be more pleased with it. It's as close to what I had envisioned the Les Miserables movie looking like in my head for the twenty years between the time I discovered the musical and the time the movie came out. These were just things that, upon rewatch, made me go, "hmmm...."

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