Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


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(Above): Anne Hathaway in ‘Les Miserables’

AFTER watching and enjoying Tom Hooper’s mega-musical ‘Les Miserables’, and then checking out its eight Oscar nominations, one was initially surprised that the film wasn’t in the shortlist for best musical score. After all, Claude-Michel Schonberg’s outstanding music and Herbert Kretzmer’s English lyrics form the backbone of the film.

‘Les Miserables’, which has an ensemble cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, is one of the most unusual film musicals ever released. But the reason for not making the nomination list is actually simple, and even justified from the Academy Award committee’s viewpoint. The award is for Best Music (Original Score), and the ‘Les Miserables’ score is not original, as the same songs were used in the hugely successful stage musical by Alain Boublil and Schonberg.

The Best Music (Original Score) category will thus be a toss-up between ‘Anna Karenina’ (music by Dario Marianelli), ‘Argo’ (Alexandre Desplat), ‘Life of Pi’ (Mychael Danna), ‘Lincoln’ (the great John Williams) and ‘Skyfall’ (Thomas Newman). Here again, one is surprised Hans Zimmer didn’t get a nomination for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and Fernando Velazquez wasn’t considered for ‘The Impossible’, with both movies having strikingly powerful soundtracks.

To come back to ‘Les Miserables’, Schonberg did make it to the list for Best Music (Original Song). This was for ‘Suddenly’, a new song specially created for the film, and picturised on Hugh Jackman. But here, the competition is rather tough, the other nominees being Adele for the ‘Skyfall’ title song, composer Mychael Danna and singer Bombay Jayashri for ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ from ‘Life of Pi’, Walter Murphy and Norah Jones for ‘Everybody Needs A Best Friend’ from ‘Ted’ and J Ralph, Scarlett Johansson and violinist Joshua Bell for ‘Before My Time’ from ‘Chasing Ice’.

On the technical side, the ‘Les Miserables’ team of Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes has been nominated in the Best Sound Mixing category, along with ‘Lincoln’, ‘Argo’, ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Skyfall’.

Oscar or no Oscar, there are many things that make Schonberg’s music special, and for that director Hooper deserves equal credit. To begin with, barring the odd exception here and there, all the dialogues are sung. The composer and lyricist make intelligent use of rhyming couplets, using simple phrases that build the story magnificently.

On the one hand, the film contains the hit songs from the stage musical, like ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, ‘One Day More’, ‘Master of the House’ ‘Look Down’ and ‘On My Own’. On the other, the fact that the dialogues are sung give it a unique quality.

To be sure, this experiment may not please everybody. Those who aren’t in favour of excess music in a film may feel it would have been much better had the dialogues been spoken naturally, instead of being sung everywhere. But then, the words have been used very simply, and if one accepts this concept on its face value and pays close attention to the lines, one should really enjoy.

The second quality of this film is that the actors sing the songs themselves. This is, of course, not new, as numerous films have done that in the past, and it’s now become a regular trend, especially in music-related biopics and film musicals.

Among the biopics, Sissy Spacek sang songs of Loretta Lynn in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, Jamie Foxx sang Ray Charles tunes in ‘Ray’ and Joaquin Phoenix sang Johnny Cash numbers in ‘Walk The Line’. Of the other films, we’ve had Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried singing in ‘Mamma Mia’, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in ‘Moulin Rouge’, Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere in ‘Chicago’, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and Tom Cruise in ‘Rock of Ages’. There are many more examples.

But what makes ‘Les Miserables’ unique is the risky decision of director Hooper to avoid pre-recording the songs and make the actors lip-sync. Instead, the songs are sung live and recorded even as the camera is moving, lending a certain authenticity to the way they have been picturised. In that sense, the movie follows all the rules of opera music in its execution.

This technique of recording songs live was common in the 1930s, but the last time it was used was in the disastrous 1975 film ‘At Long Last Love’, starring Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. Coming for the first time in 37 years in an English film, Hooper does rather well, getting the actors to blend the right facial expression with vocal ability. There may be times when one feels professional singers may have sung the songs more perfectly, but that may have looked a bit unnatural here.

Keeping the acting quotient in mind, the cast does a great job with the vocals. Anne Hathaway sounds simply soulful in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and newcomer Samantha Barks is just perfect for ‘On My Own’. Hugh Jackman has many songs including ‘Look Down’ and ‘Suddenly’, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter lend a nice comic touch to ‘Master of the House’. But the real surprise is Russell Crowe, who underwent special training for this singing role, and proved that he has a wonderful texture and range on the songs ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’. Besides these, some of the group songs have been choreographed perfectly.

In some ways, ‘Les Miserables has the makings of a ‘cult musical’.  If one goes by common definition, a ‘cult film’ or a ‘cult classic’ has a limited but really diehard set of admirers, who would totally swear by the film, and watch it again and again. However, at the same time, there would be a sizeable section which would either detest it, not understand it or wonder what the fuss was all about. Moreover, a cult film sets new trends, as many others try to make similar movies later.

Both these kinds of audiences may happen with ‘Les Miserables’. There will be one section which may totally love the movie, for its scale, performances and music. And there will be another which may get instantly turned off after seeing everyone just rattle off into song, and feel the 158-minute length is a bit much for such a venture.

The reviews in the British and American media have been largely positive, and the film did good commercial business too, being the largest opening weekend for a musical film in the UK. Keeping this in mind, it’s likely that other filmmakers will go in for similar projects. But going by the divided reactions, the film may never gain the mass following of ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Saturday Night Fever’.

The trick in watching such a film is to accept the concept for what it is, and listen to each and every singaloque patiently. And if you’ve loved it the first time, chances are that you’ll enjoy it even more on second viewing. Though they may be quite different in treatment, one may tend to compare ‘Les Miserables’ with musicals like ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ or ‘Oliver!’, going mainly by their setting, and the fact that they were adaptations of stage musicals.

As for a music Oscar, it doesn’t really matter. Here was a film that dared to change the way film musicals are made. And for that Hooper, Schonberg and Kretzmer will depend more on the public’s reaction to their musical treatment than on awards.

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Comments on: "‘Les Miserables’: A musical film with a difference" (2)

  1. Hi Narendra, Have you heard the OST of Life of Pi (Mychael Danna)? Its incredibly good. Its one of the best tracks I’ve heard in longtime. Mychael Danna is the same guy who wrote music for Monsoon Wedding and even Deepa Mehta’s Water. He seems like a very sorted composer.

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