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Les Mis aims to hit high note in history of film musicals

Most of the story is told through the songs, similar to the stage version

Image Credit: AP
Director Tom Hooper on the set of “Les Miserables.” (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Kerry Brown)

Few things are more carefully choreographed than a movie musical, but director Tom Hooper wanted to steep his big-screen adaptation of ‘Les Miserables’ in some gritty reality. So he took a page from Ridley Scott’s war film ‘Black Hawk Down.’ At Pinewood Studios outside London, he set up a scene in which 30 student revolutionaries and scores of background players construct a blockade to stave off the French army in 19th century Paris. He hid five cameras on the set with their operators dressed in costume, directed his performers to build a barricade, and shouted “Action!”

“Pianos were falling from above. Things were being thrown at you. It was the most anarchic, terrifying and wildly exciting thing,” said Eddie Redmayne, the British actor who plays Marius, a revolutionary. “The adrenaline is real adrenaline, plus it created amazing camaraderie. We never knew exactly where the cameras were, and we built the thing in ten minutes.”

Some precious antique furniture was destroyed in the process, but Hooper regards that as a small price to pay in his effort to set ‘Les Miserables’ apart from the string of movie-musical misfires in the last decade. Since ‘Chicago’ took home the best picture Oscar in 2002, a number of beloved stage musicals such as ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Rent’ have crashed and burned when adapted for the screen.

Lighter films, like ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘Hairspray’ have done better than serious stories, but ‘Les Miserables,’ based on Victor Hugo’s novel and centred on the unsuccessful 1815-1832 June rebellion in France, is stuffed with raw performances, offering little levity.

Still, Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of ‘The King’s Speech,’ has a few things working in his favour: His film is studded with stars including Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, and its budget, $61 million (Dh224 million), is relatively modest, lowering the financial risk for Universal Pictures. Hordes of fans of the stage version — which has played continuously since its 1985 debut despite initially terrible reviews — eagerly awaited the movie.

The film, which opened on Christmas Day, has already received four Golden Globe nominations and four Screen Actors Guild nods including best ensemble, and some reviewers have applauded Hooper and his actors’ commitment to the emotional material. But other critics have found fault with aspects, including its length (2 hours, 38 minutes) and earnestness. Before signing on to the job, Hooper screened a slew of musicals: from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ to ‘Evita’ and ‘Sweeney Todd.’

What he learned, he says, is that each one required audiences to repeatedly suspend their disbelief every time the actors opened their mouths to sing. “Even in the best musicals you were constantly needing to re-forgive them for singing. And when the music is great you could do it — particularly when it’s comedic and light — there is a joyous lightheartedness that allows for the forgiveness to operate quite freely,” says Hooper over coffee at the Chateau Marmont hotel in LA.

“I don’t want that to be the relationship I have with my audience where I’m constantly asking them to not notice that it’s not real.”

Hooper’s musical reeducation prompted him to change some of the rules, specifically how the songs are sung. Instead of allowing lip-syncing, he had all of the players sing their songs on camera as they listened to a live piano accompaniment via an earpiece. The singers controlled the tempo of each piece. He also stripped the movie of most of its spoken dialogue, with most of the story told through the songs, similar to the stage version.

“Maybe it’s more honest to say, no, if in this world we are creating, singing is the primary means of communication, then it should be sung through,” he says. “Own it, be confident about it, and don’t have any shame about it. Don’t be embarrassed by it.”

‘Les Miserables’ follows only two other sung-through, stage-to-screen adaptations: 1975’s ‘Tommy’ and 1996’s ‘Evita.’

Stage producer Cameron Mackintosh has been trying to get his musical version to the screen since soon after it debuted on the West End. Hooper collaborated on the film with Mackintosh and other creators of the stage musical: musician Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. While maintaining a fealty to the stage version that should make any ‘Les Miz’ fan proud, they altered the score to better fit a cinematic version.

“We tried to reinvent the score for the movie,” says Mackintosh. “We wanted it to be very big and very small, to reflect what was being directed on the screen by Tom, without diminishing its power from the stage. We took it all apart and put it back together so it can only be a film score.”

While all the actors were on board with singing live, the experience proved gruelling, both emotionally and to the actors’ vocal chords. The result, in Hooper’s mind, is more authentic singing performances from each actor. “These actors are not doing renditions, they are authored by them, like soliloquies in a Shakespeare play,” he says. The intensity of the performances is compounded by Hooper’s decision to shoot many of the songs at very close range, which has drawn a mixed response.

Producer Eric Fellner of Working Title isn’t concerned. “The bulk of people love it. It’s why the original show is so successful, even though it opened to horrendous reviews,” Fellner says. “I think critics look at it and feel it’s manipulative but it’s the real people that made ‘Les Miz’ happen. They adored it. They loved it.”

“Starting with ‘Moulin Rouge!’ at the beginning of the century, it’s amazing how many musical movies and television shows there have been — everything from traditional musicals, to movies and television shows that depend on a lot of musical expression, like ‘Pitch Perfect’ or the ‘Step Up’ movies,” says Bill Condon, screenwriter of ‘Chicago’ and director of 2006’s ‘Dreamgirls.’ “I think it’s back, and I think it’s been back for awhile. I don’t think it’s the issue it used to be.”

‘Les Miz’ co-star Samantha Barks, who plays the romantically scorned Eponine, says she’s witnessed the teen-girl adoration for the musical since she first played the part on the West End stage in 2009. “I get a lot of tweets saying ‘I am Eponine’ or ‘I’ve had such an Eponine day,’” says Barks. “It’s got something for everyone.”