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‘Les Miserables’ on film is not designed for the real fans

One of the most popular musicals of all time has finally made it to the big screen, more than 25 years after its stage debut.

“Les Miserables” is a stirring musical about social unrest in post-revolutionary France and stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anna Hathaway.

But what a letdown. Speaking as a real fan of the musical “Les Miserables,” I must say this film version is a huge disappointment.

The movie is much better seen than heard, and when you’re talking about a musical, that can’t be a good thing.

There is always a natural tension when casting a musical, or an opera for that matter. Do you prioritize the acting or the singing? In opera (for sure) and for stage musicals (usually,) singing tends to trump acting.

But when it comes to movie versions of said musicals, because of the increased attention to verisimilitude that movies bring, actors — especially big name actors — often get the nod over singers.

This explains casting atrocities like Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls – Brando’s simpering singing destroys one of the great roles in musical theater (Sky Masterson.)

On the flip side, when you cast strictly for voice rather than acting, you get a stiff like Richard Beymer in West Side Story, a singer whose acting is so bad his death in the show seems much less of a loss than its supposed to be.

In this film version of Les Miserables, director Tom Hooper clearly chooses actors over singers. I can only say I rue the day that decision was made.

Les Miz has one of the most soaring, semi-operatic scores in all of musical theater. But instead of cashing in on the romantic sweep of such music, Hooper decides to have the actors emote, or “act,” all over the music, often to the detriment of that music. Sure, it may be more “realistic” in some sense, but a musical like Les Miz is heightened romanticism, not hyper-realism.

The most egregious example of this is Russell Crowe, cast as the villain Javert. Crowe is a heck of an actor and I realize he sings in a rock band, but he can’t sing Javert who has a couple of magnificent arias.

Javert is the foil to the show’s hero, Jean Valjean who in the movie is played by Hugh Jackman. Unlike Crowe, Jackman can really sing. He’s a Tony-award winning musical star and a highly regarded movie actor – and he’s not nearly as bad as Crowe. But even he underserves the role because he insists on “acting” instead of “singing” too much of the time.

In his big climactic number “Bring Him Home,” Jackman is clearly straining to hit the notes almost as desperately as Crowe does throughout.

Thankfully, not all the parts are disastrous. Anne Hathaway, as the unfortunate Fantine, manages a nice balance between “acting” the desperate destitute and “singing” just enough of the melody to make it pleasant to the ear. Eddie Redmayne, as the lover Marius, is also a welcome relief. And the comic relief roles played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter work perfectly.

Overall, this is definitely not a soundtrack people are going to want to listen to over and over again like fans did with the stage show. The movie looks great, so my suggestion would be to watch the movie with the sound down and listen to the stage version on your I-pod. Obviously, this will be easier once the film is out on DVD.

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