Last weekend I saw the film of the musical Les Misérables and loved it. Perhaps that isn’t a big surprise – I’ve been a fan of the musical since I first saw it as a teenager. I can’t find the first ticket but I have one from when I paid £8.50 in October 1997 to see it with two new university friends and I saw it with my Mum in 1999 and in Birmingham with my German housemate in 2010. I have the complete vocal score on cassette tape and listened to it so much that I probably still know most of the words. So I was a rather picky viewer of the film, noticing and slightly resenting every change of lyric and actively disliking the new song (of which more later).
But there were massive strengths to the film, perhaps most noticeably the way the singing had all been recorded live. This featurette explains more but basically, instead of recording the vocal performances in a studio and then miming on set, the actors had earpieces to hear a basic keyboard accompaniment as they performed live so they could improvise and really act the singing as well as the movement. This brought some extremely fresh performances – I would say Anne Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was positively raw (and shot in one take, apparently take 4/20!). She deservedly won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, and Valjean himself, Hugh Jackman also did well winning a Globe for best actor in a comedy/musical.
I was impressed by Jackman’s vocals although less so by Russell Crowe’s Javert. He acted the part well as a convincing nemesis for Jackman but vocally I didn’t think they balanced that well. But it was far from painful. Contrast Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, he even had a studio to perform in and oh, it was agony. He was a good sport I suppose. I firmly subscribe to the Wild Goose Worship Group solemn pronouncement:
“DO NOT even object that your congregation cannot sing, unless medical certification regarding anatomical abnormalities is available. Everybody can sing. It just happens that one in four believe they can’t, usually because of the friendly advice of a parent, teacher, boyfriend or girlfriend during a delicate stage of development”
[John L Bell (1994) “Come All You People” p10].
But that doesn’t mean I would necessarily choose to listen to Pierce Brosnan sing if I could help it.
My main complaint about the new film of Les Mis had more to do with the rather cheesy new song and the storyline theme it helped to highlight. The song is called ‘Suddenly’ and is sung by Valjean as he heads off in a carriage with young Cosette having rescued her from the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who were both as good as you’d expect). It’s all about how now he has a child he has a chance to be happy and find love, and how though he’s afraid of failing her, she has warmed his heart. There’s more about the song (including the lyrics) from another blogger here (Mark D. Roberts – he’s much more positive about it). While I was predisposed to dislike any changes from the stage musical, I guess a thread about how only having a child (or making a home) make you a real person was bound to remind me of the issues I was on about last time.
The same theme is picked up in another lyric change at the end (grr) where instead of telling Cosette about her mother and how she gave her life for her, Valjean tells Cosette how he only turned from hate and learned to love thanks to Cosette. I felt this took away rather from the main journey Valjean takes in the story finding grace and changing his life after he is shown love, forgiveness and incomprehensible generosity by the Bishop. Allowing Valjean to keep the silver he had stolen and pressing him to take the candlesticks as well is the perfect demonstration of Matthew 5 v 40 where Jesus tells us to give the man who wants our shirt our coat as well. (Note to self – avoid anyone who might want my shirt. My new coat is rather lovely and good for the snow).
I did enjoy the film on the whole – two unexpected stand out moments for me, trying to avoid spoilers, were the gag with the eye-ball and the touching moment with the medal. I surprised myself by only singing along in my head. I wonder if other cinemas were alive with more singing but actually watching the film, the performances were so original that it was more fun to listen. That wouldn’t have stopped me joining in if the foyer had been like this wonderful flashmob in Newport. I’d had plenty of chances to join in the night before where I took a young friend to a local folk club. We sang a couple of duets and I sang a version of Bella Hardy’s The Herring Girl which went down well. But the best sounds of the night were when we all joined in at the close as the residents sang ‘The Good Old Way’, made famous by the Watersons although I think I prefer Eliza Carthy and the Ratcatchers version. The last two verses go:
Ye valiant souls, for heaven contend; remember glory is at the end
Our God will wipe our tears away when we have run the good old way
And far beyond this mortal shore we’ll meet with those who have gone before
And shout to think we have gained the day by marching in the good old way
Which reminds me rather of the end of Les Mis, and the reprise of ‘Do you hear the people sing’. As Valjean is dying, we hear the chorus of those who have gone before,
Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light
For the wretched of the earth, there is a flame that never dies
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.
I’m not sure what song the film-makers wanted us to leave singing. I’m doubtful many viewers will be inspired to revolution, no matter how much our country might require it. One of the essays I marked yesterday included a student talking about the need to reject capitalism and pursue revolution and I wanted to encourage them but ended up suggesting that they might be being a little naïve. Maybe asking people to love their children and be inspired by them is an easier message than asking people to go beyond the barricade to find a world we long to see. Who is singing that song now? And do we hear them?