No secret among readers, the musical is not my choice of genre. In fact I daresay I can name six musicals that I consider to be great films, and they would be the energetic Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the dark and foreboding Cabaret (1972), the rock opera Tommy (1975), the mesmerizing Hair (1979), Herbert Ross’ criminally under valued Pennies from Heaven (1981) and for my own giddy reasons Little Shop of Horrors (2003). There is something silly about actors suddenly bursting into song that I have never found captivating or the least bit interesting. Certainly there are others I admire, such as Dreamgirls (2006) and Rent (2005) but having sat through literally hundreds of musicals, I cannot claim to being a fan. Admittedly when a powerhouse voice like Jennifer Hudson cuts loose as she did in Dreamgirls (2006) I appreciate her gifts, truly, and watch the film admiring her work, in awe of what she can vocally, but musicals are not my favorite form of film.
That feeling passes over into live theater as well. Give me Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, Equus, or The Crucible over any musical any time. I remember poor Sherri dragging us to see South Pacific at the Stratford Festival here in Ontario four, maybe five years ago, and it was painful, truly a painful experience, yet the next day we saw Oliver! with Colm Feore as Fagin, and it was a wonderful experience. The songs in South Pacific were so dated, so out of touch with society today (and yes I know the play is about the past) we could not make a connection. The same thing happened in New York City in the summer of 2009. The girls and I went to see the acclaimed remount of West Side Story and at intermission considered leaving. We did not know if it was a bad night for the actors, but it was a terrible show. For Ari we stayed, and the next night Sherri took Ariana to see Mary Poppins while Aurora and I ventured to Washington Park. Ari and Sherri emerged from the theatre with huge smiles on their faces, loving every moment of the show they had seen. Musicals have never done it for me in a theater setting.
In 1990 Sherri and I were given tickets to Les Misérables with Colm Wilkinson as a wedding gift. The giver of the tickets had seen the play several times and spoke in awe of the staging, the songs, the story, and told me it would change my thinking on musicals. Dubious at best we went. A little over three hours later we emerged from the theater utterly galvanized, having seen the greatest theatrical experience of my life, which stands to this day. My God!!! The entire play was sung, but sung with such emotion and power that by end when the dead come back to the stage, my wife squeezed my hand and we look at one another, tears on our faces. What a magnificent piece of theater was this musical, so great we saw it two more times, bought the soundtrack and introduced our children to the work. Sherri and I talked often about seeing the film version when it finally came out, but I will see it alone this Christmas, her spirit no doubt beside me. I think for me it makes a difference if the entire work is sung, because then the characters are no suddenly bursting into song walking down the street. Cabaret (1972) worked because the songs were in the Kit Kat Club, save one which took place in a beer hall and provides the film its most chilling moment. With Hair (1979) the singing gave the audience the sense of the freedom of the sixties, keeping alive that spirit of youth, when bursting into song and dance was an expression of their emotions and politics of the time. Sort of a rock opera Les Miserables captivated me throughout, and when we emerged from the theater we found a store and bought the soundtrack to listen to again and again.
I was initially worried about the film. Yes, Tom Hooper is a capable director, his HBO mini-series John Adams (2007) being superb, and of course The King’s Speech (2010) was a quality piece of work, not my choice as the years best, but damned well put together. But could he helm a musical? Does he have the skill to create a film this big, and it is big, epic in scope, without ever losing sight of the intimacy of the characters, something accomplished onstage brilliantly. Could he bring everything together to bring to life one of the most important musical events of our generation? Did he have the stuff?
Chicago (2002) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but I would not place the film in my ten best films of the year and Phantom of the Opera (2004) was like the stage play, dull, dull, dull. I felt Rent (2005) had some very strong moments in it, though the film needed an edgier director, perhaps Spike Lee, who was once attached to bring out the stinging messages within. Like Les Miserables, each of those films were a long time in getting made, with Rent (2005) likely the fastest in terms of when it opened on stage to its film premiere. Nine (2009) was a mess despite the knockout work of Kate Hudson and Penelope Cruz, Sweeney Todd (2007) looked great, and Depp was terrific but the film was uneven, lacking the true horrors of the play, and I am not sure audiences ever really got Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007), which brilliantly used the music of the Beatles to tell its story of the sixties. Better choices in the artists attached might have made greater films. For instance was Joel Schumacher the right director for Phantom of the Opera (2004)? I don’t think so but not because I dislike the man’s work. In fact I do not, Tigerland (2000) was superb. Given a large budget does something to Schumacher and he goes for spectacle rather than substance. The Phantom of the Opera is part gothic horror, part love story, and he missed on both account, as the film inspired no sense of love or longing and was not for one moment frightening. As well made as Chicago (2002) was, I tired quickly of Catherine Zeta-Jones knowing she was playing a bad girl and loving a bit too much, indicating each emotion, telegraphing it to the audience. For me she never played the part, but rather the attitude of the part. Surely there were better choices? I would have loved to have seen John Travolta play Billy Flynn, the crooked lawyer in the film, just to see him tap dance. Richard Gere was dreary as he is in most films. What I did admire about the film was the manner in which the director and screenwriters found a way to transfer the play to the screen, which is to allow most of the events to be seen through Roxy’s eyes. That worked, having the songs, for the most part in the minds of the characters! But Best Picture?? Come on now.
There is a vibe already with Les Miserables (2012) that could see it win Best Picture. Period. I know, I know, it is way too early to even suggest such a thing, I would be better to wait until after Toronto in September, but I have a feeling about this one. The trailer is stunning, and the actors are actually singing their roles, not lip-syncing in a studio after the fact. You can hear and feel the pain in Anne Hathaway’s voice in the trailer, and the visuals we are given in the brief scenes are quite stunning. I struggled with the choice of Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, but admittedly might be wrong. He is talented, well liked and this could be the role of a lifetime for him, the one he is remembered for.A trailer does not a film make, I know that better than anyone, but damned this one looks good and Jackman looks as good as he has ever been. Russell Crowe looks imposing and ferocious as Javert, the man who pursues Valjean across the years, and though we see him for a split second, Eddie Redmayne should cut a swaggering Marius for us. Amanda Seyfried has the good as Cosette, we know this from Mamma Mia (2006) and stage actress Samantha Barks could be an Oscar nominee for her work as Eponine, the best female role in the play. Hooper has done, it seem everything right, opening up the play to give it a sense of epic scope, yet wisely focusing on the characters and allowing those rich and dark emotions to shine through. Look at the sense of loss and despair on the face of Hathaway as her hair is shorn, and listen to the pain in her voice. They’ve got it I think. December seems such a long wait to hear the people sing.
Tags: Anne Hathaway, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago, Hugh Jackman, John Travolta, Les Miserables, Russell Crowe, Samantha Barks, Tom Hooper