Okay, I’ll admit right up front I am, generally speaking, not a fan of musicals (neither the Broadway nor movie variety). I sheepishly shared the sentiments of columnist Mark Tapson who, on his Facebook page, posted enthusiasm about Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables receiving the silver-screen treatment while conceding he was bummed it was going to be a musical. And yes, Tapson’s social-site confession brought me a soupçon of relief — he’s a cultured, Hollywood screenwriter, after all, and even he was admitting a reflexive distaste for hours of people singing their way through a storyline.
Whew — maybe I’m not a complete philistine!
Sure, a smattering of vocal performances within a production doesn’t automatically ruin it for me by itself. I dig the medium of cinema; I love music; occasionally they can be married effectively in the “musical” genre. I enjoyed Yentl and West Side Story, for instance; and I’m an unapologetic fan of the occasional Elvis flick (Kid Galahad and Follow That Dream are worthy, if shamelessly corny, examples.) A film that tells a story through dialogue, action, etc., tossing in a few songs to spice it up? That I can handle.
What I can’t take? A story rendered wholly, or overwhelmingly, via thespians warbling to one another. For two and a half hours. In other words, the newly released Les Miserables; which, essentially, rendered me one of them — ie, the “Miserable Ones” — for most of it’s running time.
Musical passages as interlude? Tolerable. Musical passages as interminable? Not so much.
I suppose I’ve only myself to blame: A number of people (a contemplative power-lifter I recently met, one of my local Dunkin’ Donuts compadres and my mother (!!) urged me, rather pointedly: Stay away from Les Mis!
On the other hand, my dad (a fellow Clash Daily contributor) deemed it watchable (although, he asserted, afflicted with too much song). My former-Michigan-State-Lacrosse-starter/football-fanatic/guy’s-guy youngest brother raved about it. Another Clash Daily columnist, Audrey Russo, gushed to me about it, as well.
So I found myself conflicted — but curious. I’ve heard paeans to Les Miserables (stage musical) for years (decades?). A part of me wondered: exactly why all the artistic hub-bub? Plus — and this is a biggee — my wife wanted to see it; and I’m all for “investing” in my marriage.
Hence, last night, off to one of our local cineplexes.
The good news? We’d come armed with a buy-one/get-one free coupon, so I feel like I only threw away the price of one ticket.
Forty-minutes into this extravaganza’s NON-STOP, sometimes but not always skillful, serenading, I started squirming. I sensed my wife was probably even more restless than I at that juncture. “I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” she muttered mordantly.
By the hour-and-a-half mark, I was well into aggravation toward Mssr. Hugo’s colorfully memorable, but unrelentingly sing-songy, characters. Please, SHUT UP AND JUST TALK to one another, already!
Shortly thereafter, it was an act of will (with, I’ll concede, a skoche of interest in how they’d wrap things up) that kept the missus and me in our seats. When the picture finally faded to credits, I’m sorry, but I leaned forward, head down, thanking God it was over.
Mind you, I’ve read Hugo’s monumental classic. At well over a thousand pages, it presents a daunting, literary challenge — but Les Miserables the novel also yields a soaring, grippingly-crafted tale of grace, forgiveness, redemption, piety, and love.
Its Bishop Myriel is NOT a pedophile. In fact, he’s a luminous portrait of mercy and genuine devotion to Christ; one of the epic’s most admirable players. Christian faith and imagery play a lynchpin role in its twisting narrative. Inspector Javert provides storytelling drama with one of the most riveting bad-guys of all time.
Yet, most of that evaporated for me under the labor of this tedious, 157 minute musical-stage-show-cum-cinema. I did find its final five minutes somewhat poignant; by then, however, I was so eager to escape the theater the movie was beyond rescue.
My father had mentioned to me the film featured few, great songs. Turns out, he was way too generous . Les Mis‘s compositions? Gratingly unmelodious — more tuneless chants than proper singing much of the time; utterly forgettable to my ear, although Hugh Jackman (“Jean Valjean”) and Anne Hathaway (“Fantine”) demonstrate they can carry a tune.
Russel Crowe, on the other hand, does not. He’s probably my favorite actor, his Gladiator my favorite movie (a dozen years after it’s release, its themes of male friendship, love of family, personal honor and heavenly-mindedness still enchant me.) And the Aussie’s pipes doubtless served adequately during his tenure with “30 Odd Foot of Grunts” (his erstwhile rock band). But in Les Mis, Crowe’s thin baritone falters worse than Javert into the Seine.
The production boasts competent acting throughout, in spots noteworthy. Its opening sequence is visually breathtaking. The film looks good, certainly. But that remorseless, too frequently droneful, dueting and crooning? Too much for me.
I feel badly saying all this. As a Christian, I thrill at the unapologetically biblical themes celebrated in Les Miserables. Our scrofulous culture inarguably would benefit from more popular entertainment like this film — albeit with fewer and better songs.
And those who love musicals probably ought to check it out, anyway — they’ll likely find my comments wildly wide of the aesthetic mark.
For those, however, who, like I, can’t long abide grown-ups launching into full, Broadway-songster mode at the drop of every chapeau? I’d suggest Lincoln or The Hobbit or Zero-Dark-Thirty; all films where folks major in that quaint, old-fashioned art called “speaking“.
Image: Valjean and Marius in the sewers; source: Les Miserables, 1900 US edition; author: Mead Schaeffer; public domain/copyright expired
Lower Image: Young Cosette sweeping; 1886 engraving for Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables; author: Émile Bayard (1837–1891)