Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Universal's new "Les Miserables" packs theaters on Christmas Day; is it as effective as a movie musical as on stage?

I couldn’t get a ticket for the opening of Universal’s “ultimate” movie version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”  ("The Wretched Ones". directed by Tom Hooper) until Christmas night at the AMC Tysons, and indeed this one, in a huge auditorium for ETX Digital, sold out, too.  This particular theater crops only from the top, so a film in 1.85:1 format but otherwise “big”,  gets the most screen area.

I’ve see that I’ve discussed the musical twice on my drama blog. The first of these appears on April 1, 2006, based on a performance at the National Theater in Washington in late 2005; it has played there again this month; I also discuss a performance of Martin Guerre in Minneapolis, bout Boulbil-Schoenberg collaborations. The other discusses the British 25th anniversary “O2” stage production broadcast on PBS, and available on DVD from Universal, which I purchased

I actually saw an earlier dramatic (non-musical) movie version of the novel in the spring of 1998, when I was living in Minneapolis.  That film, from Columbia, was directed by Bille August.  I recall a dinner discussion about this film with a college student in the libertarian party there; the student had helped arrange a college (and television-taped) speech on my book.   So I have some history with this story.

Victor Hugo’s novel is one of the longest in existence. I believe that we read portions of it in French in 11th grade French class (for a whole quarter) in high school, back in 1960. The enormous plot deals with moral themes, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman in the new film)  has taken enormous risks to provide for others (somewhat out of filial or intergenerational responsibility), first the family of his sister, and then to raise Cosette (Amanda Seyfried as an  adult during the 1832 rebellion). It’s easy to imagine exam essay questions on these ideas (students – take hint; I’ve “taught” before).  It might make a good college application or SOL essay, too.  We’ve seen this idea in other literature, as with Charles Dickens, George Elliot (Silas Marner)  and Harper Lee.  Students ought to correlate “civilizational” concepts across courses, including foreign language.  I’ll toss out one more film to ponder in this regard, Michael Frayn’s “Cophenhagen”, often shown to chemistry and physics classes.  Yet how much of this stuff does one really get until having to “live it” as an adult?

Jan Valjean, himself one of the less fortunate, is redeemed by his own sacrifices -- raising a young woman and giving her up, as Michael Gerson notes in the Washington Post, "Crying at the Movies", here.  (At the age of 10, I remember crying at the end of "The Robe", the first picture in Cinemascope, when the hero is executed at the end by the Romans.)

As a musical, the experience really works better on stage for me.  In film, although the cinematorgraphy is sometimes quite imaginative (as when Valjean escapes), the work tends to come across as episodic, as a plateau for all the wonderful  musical numbers on a movie set that really could almost be seen as an extension of stage.  Russell Crowe is appropriately oppressive as Javert (“the cop”), but the other younger male characters toward the end, in the rebellion, sort of come across as a lineup, although Eddie Redmayne is appealing as Marius.

This sort of big musical in the past would have had an intermission (just like on stage), running 157 minutes.  There is a clear sense of "Second Half" when the 1832 June Rebellion sequence starts.   

The official site for the film is here

The lilt of the music score by Claude Michel-Schoenberg is non-stop, coming to its famous enormous climax in the final number (in A-flat Major, on the stage PBS version – I tested the pitch on my Casio).  In the film, the closing credit music is reasonably well extracted, coming to one more orchestral climax to end the entire film.  I’ve wondered whether the French stage composer has any familial relation to Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, who largely invented “atonality”.  But the two composers have more in common than one would think, as Arnold also wrote some of the most lush postromantic music ever conceived.  The sunrise passage that closes the “Gurrelieder” really would work in the closing credits of the musical.

Universal and Working Title, have been quick to remind us that the actors (especially Jackman) sing as they act, without back-editing to put in the singing. Jackman is said to have lost 25 pounds for the role so that his face would have that hollowed-out, wretched look.  And Schoenberg (#2) wrote a new song, "Suddenly" for a climatic point in the film version in the  June Rebellion .  
Wikipedia attribution link for Paris picture.  My visits were in 1999 and 2001.  

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