‘Les Misérables,’ a new kind of movie musical

Movie musicals have been around for decades, bringing us wonderful moments from Julie Andrews and Gene Kelly all the way to Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ewan McGregor (and yes, that even includes John Travolta). This year, however, it looks like the genre is going to be revolutionized yet again with the arrival of the highly anticipated film adaptation of Les Misérables.

Why is this release considered such a “revolutionary” endeavor (besides the Les Mis pun intended)? The cast members will all be singing their parts on set live, instead of mouthing the words to a playback track of a prerecorded song they had performed months prior to filming. There is a man behind the scenes playing piano accompaniment into an earpiece secretly worn by the actors as they are singing in character.

This is by no means an easy feat, as the actors have to keep singing their parts over and over again, putting additional strain on their voices. However, what may be magical about it is that each vocal performance will be slightly different from the one before it, creating unique takes on each song just like a regular speaking performance. It gives the actors the ability to be in character as they are singing, reacting in the moment to what is going on around them, as opposed to having a predetermined style of acting that they had been locked into by previously recording their songs.

As you can see in this featurette released about the film, the actors address these issues and the benefits to singing live during their performances. Hugh Jackman even performs some examples of how each take can vary while singing live in this behind-the-scenes look! The Tom Hooper-directed film stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Movie musicals vary from decade to decade, and certainly have different ways of telling the stories. This idea of the actual actors singing their own parts on set reminded me of the movie musical, Singin’ in the Rain (1952). In this film set in the 1920s on the verge of talking pictures, the story revolves around an actor named Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) who works alongside an actress whose voice does not translate well from silent to talking films, so they find her a secret back-up singer, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), to dub her voice without the actress knowing that it will be Kathy’s recording in the film instead of her own. In this clip you actually get to hear Debbie Reynolds’ voice performing an example of this kind of substitution.

Interestingly enough, the idea of prerecorded songs being placed into films was not new to the world of cinema, but the fact that they used a different voice to sing some of Kathy’s songs in the movie instead of Debbie Reynolds is pretty ironic. The voice of Betty Noyes can be heard singing Kathy’s part in the film multiple times, which is exactly what her character was doing in the film to the other actress.

Musicals have come a long way on film since then, but each seem to follow the same pattern: prerecord the actor singing months ahead of time, then use a playback track to act with on set.

However, there have been some differences from film to film. While classic films such as West Side Story (1961) and Singin’ in the Rain have substituted some of the actors’ voices for others instead, some other films have gone the route many audience members prefer, which is getting actors who can actually sing to perform their parts themselves (albeit, not in the same way as Les Misérables).

Films like Rent (2005) and Chicago (2002) have put forth some real Broadway stars to act and sing in the films, which makes them seem a bit more authentic. However, the movies cannot provide the same experience as watching a real Broadway performance; they tell the story in a different way, being able to put songs over scenes and have the actors mouth the words whenever they are needed. These films are not recorded Broadway performances – that’s what makes them special as movie musicals.

Les Misérables seems to be marrying both of these concepts: using the luxury of film to provide movie magic and grand scenery, while at the same time giving us authentic performances from its seasoned actors who are – we are assuming at this point – actually talented singers.

What remains to be seen is whether or not this combination will be revolutionary in a beneficial way. Perhaps some of the audience members will be looking for more of a fantastical experience at the movies instead of a realistic performance. It seems that this film is heading in the direction of combining the more realistic non-musical version of the novel’s adaptation in 1998’s Les Misérables with the immensely popular over-the-top stage production by the same name.

If movie musicals are not quite your thing, I still urge you to give Les Misérables a chance, as I believe it will be a great opportunity to witness something fresh and exhilarating, as the story is enchanting and the music is spectacular. Read on for the synopsis (via IMDb) and check out the movie’s haunting trailer here:

Prisoner 24601, known as Jean Valjean, is released from prison and breaks parole to create a new life for himself while evading the grip of the persistent Inspector Javert. Set in early revolutionary France, the story reaches resolution against the background of the June Rebellion.

Les Misérables comes to theaters December 25, 2012.

Check out one of the many great songs this musical has to offer, “One Day More,” from the 10th Anniversary Concert performance:

Are you looking forward to this film, or does the live singing idea turn you off?

Images – Universal Pictures


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