The movie musical, like the western, is a film genre whose heyday seems long past. And yet it is sustained through occasional revivals, by rusted-on aficionados who constantly and fervently pray for the day when it will become truly popular fare again, and neophytes intrigued by something unfashionable, and yet possessed of a powerful mystique, and a reputation for pleasures largely unmediated by the ephemeral postures of pop culture. In the forty years that have passed since the multiple Oscars garnered by Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, both the first anti-musical and one of the last rounds in the genre’s spell of prestige, the genre has been repeatedly, forcibly resuscitated by filmmakers. The specific fuel for the greatest exemplars of the genre was in the tension between the essential theatricality of the genre’s roots, its demand that the camera record the basic spectacle of actors dancing and singing, and the way the musical could, if handled properly, become a form of almost pure cinema, in its entwining of motion, sound, colour, and performance, in pure audio-visual raptures. But in the past few decades the increased imposition of pushier cinematic technique over the performative aspect of musicals, the kind of seizure-provoking editing utilised in music videos and appropriated by filmmakers tackling the genre, has increasingly degraded both the performance, as actors who can barely sing or dance are often shoehorned into musical parts and can get away with it thanks to quick edits hiding their shortcomings, and also the purity of the musical as cinema. I readily admit that some recent film musicals have pleased many, like Moulin Rouge (2000) and Chicago (2002), and yet for the most part as a breed they drive me consistently batty, with their lack of grace and art, of respect for performance and for their frenetic, quite fascistically constant and yet oddly superficial “energy”, as works of cinema built around a single, abusive presumption on the part of their directors, that all hint of staidness, prestigious heaviness, and theatricality be banished with a nerve-shredding relentlessness.
The colossal popularity of a small cabal of hugely successful super-productions like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s handful of hits, and Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Misérables, in the 1980s was the exception that largely proved the rule of the decline of the musical theatre, elephantine spectacles of cod-operatic music matched to dumbed-down public domain texts and pseudo-history. It’s revealing that the success of these works was entirely predicated in their general rejection of not just post-‘60s pop as a vessel but also of ragtime and jazz influence, the linguistic and sonic zest of the Broadway musical tradition, and the heady modernist dexterity of Stephen Sondheim. Lloyd-Webber, who made his name with the remarkable stylistic mash-up of Jesus Christ Superstar, got respectable, even more successful, and mind-numbingly boring. His breed’s immense success and their package-tour audiences reinforced the musical’s reputation as something that invites conservative code-words (Something the whole family can enjoy. Something you can sing along to). Even the moments of grit and bawd in such fare feel excruciatingly calculated, and represent the same force at work that’s apparent in the editing of the films Chicago and Moulin Rouge, an attempt to offer a facile contemporaneity to a style that is perceived, correctly or not, as alternately camp or square, retrograde, and cute. One can also study with amusement the blind eye critics turn to the leering interludes in these films; Chicago and Nine (2009) helmsman Rob Marshall and Les Misérables’ erstwhile helmsman Tom Hooper can zero in on as many butts and bouncing corseted boobies as they like, because they’re sexing up your grandma’s genre, whereas Zack Snyder gets keelhauled. The abominations that were Alan Parker’s film of Evita (1996) and Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) proved that the reactions Lloyd-Webber’s works provoked on stage, whatever they were, were not transferable.
Now, I realise I’ve written two paragraphs now without speaking about this film version of Les Misérables, which is in part because it forced me to think long and hard about my own attitude towards the modern movie musical. Apart from the sturm-und-drang of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007), the handful of recent musicals which I like, whilst admitting their imperfection, are generally eccentric, likeable little twists on the genre – Les Chansons d’Amour (2007), Romance & Cigarettes (2005), Idlewild (2006) – which have deconstructed presumptions and looked under the genre’s starchy petticoats. One problem I’ve often had with the “integrated musical” on film is that things that can be communicated through gesture or cinematic device in a couple of well-conceived seconds are explained laboriously through song, and so I often prefer the genre when it spins far, far off into pop art-styled fantasias, a la Singin' in the Rain (1952). Les Misérables forces one to contend with a book that’s almost entirely libretto, translating the original show’s French script into an English vernacular that is consistently, numbingly literal, lacking humour and real beauty in the words. Whatever lyrical verve one associates with Sondheim or Oscar Hammerstein bypassed Les Misérables. Les Misérables doesn’t have roots in hoofer chutzpah either, so there’s no dancing or relief in physical dynamism to give a break from the constant heartfelt wailing – nor has director Hooper and his filmmaking team worked to develop any aspect of this. Like Lloyd-Webber, this is something close to full-bore (emphasis on the bore) operetta. That means that if the score and singing aren’t particularly pleasing to you, then tough luck, it’s constant. A good director can still handle even this with finesse – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger did it with striking if not entirely successful ebullience in Tales of Hoffmann (1951).
My own reasonably pleasant memories of watching a TV presentation of the Les Miz stage production in the mid-’90s were belied when I obtained a copy of the Broadway cast recording a couple of years ago, and realised that the musical’s handful of catchy tunes – “Master of the House”, “I Dreamed a Dream”, and “Do You Hear The People Sing?” – are surrounded by acres of infinitely less thrilling verbiage and music, and try as it might, Anne Dudley’s orchestral arrangements bring no bounce or vivacity to the heaviness of the rhythms and the dullness of the lyrics. But that’s not really the problem. It’s possible to make an enjoyable film out of a second-rate show: Marshall ironically proved that with his surprisingly solid Nine, as did Bill Condon with his energetic take on the dramatically weak Dreamgirls (2006). But Les Misérables is in the hands of Hooper, elevated by his second feature film, The King’s Speech (2010), to major director status. After the overall aesthetic glibness, matched to an inane script, of his last film, here Hooper slips his reins and comes of age as a truly godawful filmmaker. This Les Misérables, over and above the faults of the source material, is bludgeoned to death by some of the worst directorial choices I’ve ever been sorry enough to contend with. The film does open promisingly, with a self-consciously grandiose sequence of the convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his myriad fellows labouring to haul a storm-damaged man-o-war into dry dock (even if this does suspiciously resemble a backdrop from “Age of Empires” or the like), with the thunderous strains of “Look Down” resounding from big brass like the wrath of Poseidon. For a few seconds, it seems as if Hooper is aiming directly for the highest pantheons of cinematic spectacle, calling back to David Lean or Cecil B. DeMille, and gives hopes what follows might emulate the fearlessly visual qualities of some of the by-products of the time when the musical and the blockbuster spectacle were briefly conflated in the 1960s. But one is quickly warned about the nature of what one is about to sit through when Javert orders Valjean to retrieve the tricolore still attached to a piece of broken mast; Valjean huffily, puffily picks up the whole mast instead of, say, untying the flag. The function of this vignette – to establish Valjean’s strength and present the symbol of the Revolutionary standard, trampled in mud – is obvious, as is the way this sequence reveals the lack of imagination of the filmmakers in remoulding the material away from the broadest possible strokes of theatre.
Such laborious effort for piddling result proves the perfect metaphor here, as promise soon gives way to a trek through the material that is at once flat-footed and hyperkinetic: whereas the epic in cinema is defined as much by visual breadth and composition as it by the size of its casts and sets, Hooper soon tethers himself to an approach that confirms the YouTube-ification of the medium, filled with fisheye-lensed shots of warbling mugs lurching at the camera in the fashion easily recognisable from a decade’s worth of bedroom wannabes trying to dazzle us with their take on the hits of Journey. Hooper refuses to let the film breath at any point, and quite obviously doesn’t give a fuck about inviting a neophyte audience into the story. Even the natural breaks between “acts” Victor Hugo’s source novel provided are conjoined and skidded over at breakneck speed. Whilst Hooper’s general approach seems superficially to counter the flashy edits of Baz Luhrmann and Marshall, attempting to imbue a kind of naturalism by shooting as much of the key singing scenes in single-take shots and capturing on-set singing, it soon proves to be more of the same, only worse. In The King’s Speech, Hooper’s tedious predilection for jamming his camera close to faces, milking the effect of distorted emotive intensity, was nascent; here, it’s unbound, in a film that is a near-endless succession of actors shouting at the camera, which itself dances about in endless, nauseating instability and pointless animation, thanks to Danny Cohen’s photography, rendering the film in a near-constant argot of steadicam swooning. The editing, by Chris Dickens and Melanie Oliver, is grotesquely sloppy and arrhythmic, usually paying no attention whatsoever to what the pulse of the music score is doing, and instead determinedly thrusting the audience into a thicket of pointless images.
In this fashion, the flow of sequences in which Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is steadily degraded from member of the working glass to gutter whore, is explicated as a relentless succession of tasteless money shots, garish visuals, and blindingly bad overacting. The approach on the whole starts to feel like an early John Waters film without the humour, whilst Fantine’s mortification becomes as overdrawn, down to pulled teeth, as that of the hero of Phantom of the Paradise (1974). But this isn’t supposed to be satire. Glimpsed in the background behind the actors are occasional signs of interesting production design, by Eve Stewart, particularly the waterfront locale where the prostitutes gather to bark “Lovely Ladies” at Fantine, and later where Valjean and Javert argue over her; the faintly expressionistic flavour of the set, with boats caught frozen in ice on the edge of nothingness, could have been a perfect place to stage “I Dreamed a Dream” as a song of show-stopping grandeur: I can see how a real director could have handled it, one with an iota of sense in staging. Most infuriating is the way that Victor Hugo is absolutely lost. His novel is melodramatic, maudlin, and absurdly plotted, in the familiar style of Victorian Realist fiction, but it was also rooted in a poet’s feel for atmosphere and a genuine, powerful sense of social anger that was bent on interrogating the presumptions of his society towards matters of justice and social worth. Here the meat of Hugo has been reprocessed into the broadest of comic-opera acting and chocolate-box sentimentality, the worst aspects of Victoriana extracted, preserved, and turned into fetish. Weepy big-eyed Cosette. Fantine’s theatrical self-pity. Now, keep in mind this is a story I love: over the years I’ve seen and enjoyed several filmed variations on Hugo, including Lewis Milestone’s spare, psychologised 1952 version, Claude Lelouche’s inspired meta rendition of 1995, Bille August’s naturalistic 1998 adaptation, and the lengthy, in-depth French 2000 TV version with Gerard Depardieu. All of these versions had something worthwhile to add to the mythology, like Robert Newton’s and Geoffrey Rush’s shaded revelations of the perversity and sado-masochistic impulses underlying Inspector Javert’s relentlessness. But here Javert is an empty vessel, declaiming his motivations and reasoning without feeling them. His big production number, walking the edge of a balcony above a dolorously fake-looking set, in the midst of a faker-looking period CGI Paris, concludes with Hooper swinging a crane shot up and away from Crowe's face as he fails to make his big note, as if reacting in physically manifest embarrassment.
Crowe’s unpersuasive voice does nothing to put across any latent depth in the role, as the actor seems for the first time since a film as bad as Virtuosity (1996) at a loss for a way to handle his part, although he settles for an upright immobility that allows the actor to retain a level of dignity that the other actors throw away. Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, is game but fails to impress, partly because although an experienced theatre hound, he’s still outmatched by his vocal role, and the actor’s natural capacities – his charismatic machismo and sense of good-humour – are buried under the dullness of the characterisation. Casting two Aussies in the lead roles may have been partly intended as a nod to the excellence of Philip Quast’s impersonation of Javert on stage (he played Javert in a stage version assembling performers from many different national productions), but neither has Quast’s plummy gusto. It's worth noting, too, that Crowe is, physically and acting-wise, a far more natural fit for Valjean than Jackman. Similarly, where affecting, carefully leavened depictions of Fantine’s pathos by the likes of Sylvia Sidney and Uma Thurman gave a sense of humanity’s potential for merciless treatment of the weak members of the herd, and also the complex web of attitudes such victims can experience, here it’s all about emotional thuggery for the sake of provoking the audience’s weepy platitudes. Thus Hathaway’s much-hyped performance, which reclaims “I Dreamed a Dream” from the talent show bravura of Susan Boyle and reconnects it with the specific emotion of its context, is nonetheless deliriously awful, as that specific emotion is immediately banished again: Hathaway does everything short of claw her own eyes out for the sake of impressing us with her acting, lurching about like a drunken hysteric and finally resembling a plucked chicken. Hooper’s presentation of her part of the story borders on the self-satirising; it’s so baldly, desperately absurd.
Hooper, rather than space for the actors to define their roles and an appropriate study of mise-en-scene, instead offers cheeseball Forrest Gump pinches – flitting leaves drifting on the wind over computer-retouched landscapes to suggest the arbitrariness of fate. I looked forward to the relative sprightliness of the Sondheim-esque “Master of the House” number after the drudgery of the film’s first third. But the scene in which the song arrives instead proves the film’s perfect storm of crappiness, as the awfulness of the photography style and the cloddishness of the editing induce wincing: Hooper cuts willy-nilly to take in variously gaudy caricatures and unfunny, poorly staged and filmed comedy, whilst Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as the Thénardiers, mug abominably and sing worse. Clearly cast to recapture some of the mojo of Sweeney Todd, the capable duo flounder here embarrassingly, and the film here starts to feel like being trapped inside a dishwasher with the troupe from a theatre restaurant. Indeed, the job Burton did in sustaining Sweeney Todd’s balance of showy cinematic language and musical chic looks better and better. I wish I could comment on the film’s second half, but I abandoned this film shortly after Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne started making goo-goo eyes at each-other. There’s no art here at all; there isn’t even the disturbing pleasure of excess or shamelessness for its own sake. Les Misérables represents an absolute bastardisation of both cinema and the musical, and in my mind nearly as far from good filmmaking as it’s possible to get without delving into the out-of-focus delights of hardcore pornography. But of course, the fans won’t notice the lacks, either because they don’t want to, or more likely, they don’t see the difference anymore.