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by Bryce J. Renninger
January 15, 2013 1:11 PM
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Film Aside, Can You Listen to the 'Les Miserables' Soundtrack On Its Own?

"Les Miserables."
"Les Misérables" may have taken home the Golden Globe for Best Comedy/Musical, but it's nowhere near to a universally acclaimed film. 2012 has been a year in which none of the top awards contenders have earned that distinction -- "Lincoln" gets as many raves as "mehs," and ebates on the ethics of "Zero Dark Thirty" are front page news.  And while Tom Hooper's ambitious take on the beloved stage musical "Les Misérables" is doing stellar business worldwide, critics and fans are lukewarm on many of the risky moves the "King's Speech" director made to bring the Broadway version of Victor Hugo's story to life.

While many critics of the film are quick to point out how much of the time Hooper's camera is ever-so-close to his all-star cast, the film is also full of epic shots (enhanced with CGI) of 18th century Paris.  Hooper not only chose to shoot many of the film's well-known songs up close and personal, he also made the daring decision to have all of his actors sing live.  As Hooper described to Indiewire's Jay Fernandez, his team attached microphones to either side of the actors so that their voices would be picked up no matter where they turned.  

'Les Miserables'
While Anne Hathaway's one-take rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" as the condemned prostitute Fantine has propelled her to a Golden Globe win and (probably) an Oscar and the film's original song "Suddenly" was nominated for both awards, is the film's soundtrack actually listenable as a stand-alone album? The Original London Cast and Original Broadway Cast Recordings of the show are must-haves for theater fans, but has Hooper's aural close-up ruined the movie's soundtrack -- dubbed "Highlights from the Motion Picture"?

In some instances, the choices made to bring a nuanced adaptation to the screen hurt the listenability of the movie's songs as standalone pieces; in some instances, the stars aligned. Here's a breakdown of how different songs fared the aural close-up:

The soundtrack tracks that will be skipped:

"I Dreamed a Dream"

Movie Version:

London Recording:

Let's get this out of the way first.  In the context of the narrative, as Hooper's camera pays tribute to the defeated Fantine, Anne Hathaway's version of this song is breathtaking.  When you press play and crank it up to sing along, you realize it's really hard to do so as Hathaway whimpers.  Hathaway's version of the song must only live within the entire film in order to be listenable.  Luckily, it's one of the parts of the film that make it worth revisiting.

"Master of the House"

Movie Version:

London Recording:

Smack dab in the middle of one of the most tragic stage musicals of all time is one of the greatest comic songs written for theater.  Unfortunately, Sacha Baron Cohen's Thénardier must sing each line of the song separately with a silly vignette to act out every line. The stilted low-key version does not have the boisterous bawdy feel of the stage take on the anthem.  Bucking tradition from the London and New York stage shows and against the choices of the film's other actors, Cohen's vague European (read: British) accent is the only one that dips into French (sometimes it's 'ze,' sometimes 'the.')  All this is not helped by Mme. Thénardier, a lackluster Helena Bonham Carter.

"One Day More"

Movie Version:

London Recording:

When actors perform this one on a stage (or when guests perform it a Danish wedding reception), the house is brought down. The song is essential to wrap up all the narratives and send us to the denouement. In the film, the epic anthem does not benefit when each character's line is stitched together from being separately shot and stitched together.  


Movie Version:

As Hooper explained to Anne Thompson, the show's original lyricist and composer helped him craft an all-song version of the play.  In order to do this (and to get some extra nominations) a song needed to be added.  In "Suddenly," Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) gives a lot of exposition.  And listeners doze off.

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  • rageoffstage | January 17, 2013 1:36 PMReply

    Thank you for putting all this together - we were thinking this would be an interesting comparison given that many people will no doubt buy the film soundtrack as a result of seeing the movie. We can't decide whether the Anne Hathaway version is more annoying with or without the visuals, though. Also worth noting that you are using the original London recording rather than the 10th anniversary 'dream cast' recording, which benefitted from the addition of Phillip Quast as Javert and Michael Maguire as Enjolras. That might have changed things a bit! Here's our take on the movie....http://rageoffstage.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/tom-hoopers-movie-puts-the-misery-back-into-les-miserables-and-takes-the-musical-out

  • HSM | January 16, 2013 7:57 AMReply

    I am so glad they made a good movie and not a karaoke film to sing along to. ;-) That was why Tom Hooper chose Russell Crowe despite what the critics say, the ability to act is much more important in the movie than on the stage where almost no one could see the actors' faces.