I find it fascinating to read and listen to the critiques of Les Misérables that are making their way through the cyberworld. There are those who cannot abide the imperfection of the singing. Others wonder why there was no use of autotune. Still others question the validity of the film compared to the live show. I have decided to weigh in on this controversy with several thoughts.
First off, I think it is a marvelous experiment to produce a musical film that has the singing performed live on the set. As a trained singer and actor, I would adore putting the acting first in a film and use my singing expertise to highlight key parts of songs. The lyrics of this show are wonderful and move the narrative along beautifully. I was in awe of Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks. The acting performances of these three during their key solo numbers was nothing short of astonishing. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe were less inspiring: Jackman because he has over sung so much his vibrato is unreliable and his poor intonation was quite noticeable, and Crowe because he put the singing first rather than his normally phenomenal acting. Herein lies the debate.
Should a musical that relies so much on an operatic score be directed to highlight the wonderful melodies or should the narrative and libretto be the driving force of the film, at the cost of wonderful singing? I can argue either viewpoint. I think the validity of recording direct sound for songs is substantiated by the introspection that occurs on the set when one is in the character and working with the circumstances that are happening in the scene. On the other hand, the music is such a key aspect of this show that I did indeed miss hearing wonderful singing by exceptional voices. Certainly one can get fantastic acting performances from an actor lip synching to a pre-recorded vocal. However, I recognize that the real life connection that is encouraged in an actor to be raw and exposed is much different when the actor is not concerned with matching a pre-recorded rendition.
I believe we should accept the film on its own terms. Rather than contrast it to what it might have been had it conformed to industry conventions, or compare it to the experience of the live production, I want to let it be what it is. Les Misérables is an innovative approach to a musical film. As such, it cannot be compared to anything. However, we should remember that Rouben Mamoulian decided to let Applause be filmed with mostly direct sound as well. It was daring, bold, difficult, and only partially successful. But as we study it today, we consider his innovative use of camera and sound to create the space of the story world to be amazingly progressive. Mamoulian influenced all who followed him.
Across the Universe has some songs that were recorded as dialogue as well. Julie Taymor used the direct sound approach to several songs in the show. However the more rambunctious group numbers with heavy choreography were done traditionally. I would argue that Taymor was quite successful in her use of production sound for some of the songs.
It is easy for us to judge the aural aesthetics of a film using the criteria from the past. It is less easy to assess the new approach without bias. Regardless of our conclusions, technology moves our filmmaking to new places. As it improves, we are going to experience new ways of storytelling.
And so it will be with Les Misérables. Love it or hate it, the envelope has been pushed from the inside. Can we just go back to pre-recorded music without questioning what else can be done with sound and music? I think not and I hope not.
I think Mamoulian would be pleased.