Monday, December 24, 2012

the anti-musical

"Les Miz" - kinda strange for a musical
Tom Hooper’s film of the cult pop opera, “Les Misérables,” is one of those movies that’s oblivious to criticism.

It has a built-in audience, a rather sizable one, which loves it, and anyone who doesn’t love it is, well, a wretch (to borrow from and translate the production’s title), someone clearly deserving of his/her misery.

Me? I didn’t like it. Yes, it's bad, but actually, the worst thing that I can say about “Les Misérables,” whose stage productions I managed to avoid for more than two decades now, is that it’s exactly what I expected it to be – an extravaganza for tourists, at turns middle-brow and pretentious.

Also tedious, bloated and exhausting.

Given that it’s based on the imposing Victor Hugo tome, in which just about everyone suffers and then dies, it’s no surprise that this is yet another danceless musical, despite a credit to Liam Steel. Dancing would be way too joyful for the funereal mood that pervades the material here. Still, I missed that particular element. My hunch is that Hooper directed everything in "Les Miz" all by himself, handling all of it, even those many "songs," with the same dull, monotone touch.

A musical without dancing? Kinda strange for a ... musical. A musical without dancing is, well, only half a musical.

Finally, most of the buzz around "Les Miz" has to do with Hooper’s decision to have the film’s interminable list of songs – all 50 of them – sung "live," as if that was an edgy decision. But, frankly, there was no other way to film this material, given that most of the “songs” here aren’t songs at all but long stretches of sustained dialogue, set to droning music.

Hooper's only other option was to dub/loop the entire movie.

The songs in Les Miz" are, more or less, internal monologues. Its characters "sing" to themselves or directly to the audience, mostly to themselves, but rarely to other characters. They don't connect musically.

“Les Misérables,” in the end, isn’t a musical at all. It’s an anti-musical.

36 comments:

Kristin said...


I just got home from the Les Mis matinee. I got the giggles about the time that Russell Crow tipped off the parapet and hit...not just the water...but the retaining wall following a boring song that lasted at least 5 minutes. I am going to need to go to bed early tonight. Kristin in Bozeman mt

arlene said...

You nailed it! Middle-brow and pretentious indeed.

A.N. said...

I respect your comment but clearly this isn't the type of movie for your tastes. Perhaps musicals in general are not for you unless it's something light hearted like "Mamma Mia."

Right, there is no dancing just like I wouldn't want to dance through your tragedies. And they are not singing over monologues. It's called an opereta like Evita. Look it up.

joe baltake said...

Er, A.N., I believe my first reference to it is as "a cult pop opera." It's not bad. I just don't like it.

Carson Grimes said...

Were you on Ketamine? Ann Hathaway's performance was visceral. How is it that your critique is the first one shown using the RT Android app?

joe baltake said...

Just lucky, I guess, Carson. Re Hathaway's naked bid for an Oscar in her big solo number, I refer you to Anthony Lane's review in the current New Yorker. Lane writes, "The actors were recorded live as they belted out the big numbers, and Hathaway, in particular, takes full advantage, turning in precisely the sort of performance, down to the last sniff, that she would be the first to lampoon on 'Saturday Night Live.' Not that you can blame her. She probably took one look at the material and realized that the only way to survive it was by the naked power of oomph."

PCK said...

I have seen Les Mis on broadway, two travelling companies, and now on film. I thought they did quite a good job of translating the broadway show to film. Operettas / Operas are frequently full of exagerated emotion. I did find Russell Crowe's performance left a little to be desired, but on the whole, it's a wonderful rendition. Really, to criticize the film because they didn't hire a choreographer, or insert dance scenes where the show simply isn't meant to have them just seems beneath a serious critique.

joe baltake said...

I appreciate your enthusiasm for the show/material, but to repeat myself, I just didn't like it. My critique is my point of view and not an attempt to validate the thoughts and tastes of another person. Can't be done.

Foster said...

If "Lez Miz" is an anti-musical, then is your critique an anti-review?

joe baltake said...

Foster! God, I certainly hope so.

Tonya said...

Liked this review. Agree with almost everything you say - nay, I agree with everything you say. My question: Why the brevity? I could go on and on about this movie, which itself also goes on and on.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Tonya. This is a blog and posts on blogs are expected to be terse, a rule that I don't always honor. Bit I geneerally aim for terseness, particularly after years of writing voluminous print reviews. The brevity of this form is rather liberating. Re this critique of "Les Misérables" in particular, I said exactly what I wanted to say and at the length I desired.

wwolfe said...

Having recently seen a revival of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," Les Miz serves as the perfect antonym: the former is exactly what I enjoy about Musicals (mostly) Past - wit, effervescence, memorable melodies and sharp lyrics, and a wonderfully American disrespect for hokum - while the latter is an all-too-perfect example of Musicals Present: gloomy, overwrought, with the needs of the almighty book musical swamping the talents of both the lyricist to define character and plot through the too-frail reed of the lyric, and the verbosity and ponderousness of those lyrics destroying any hope for a hummable tune. To quote the New Yorker, I say it's Stalinist spinach and I say the hell with it.

joe baltake said...

Bill- I urge you to read David Denby's astute - and very witty - take on the film of "Les Miz" that he wrote for The New Yorker on-line.

wwolfe said...

Thank you for the link. I think that's the best thing I've ever read by Denby.

Beth Hoffman said...

Couldn't agree more! Pretentious load of (Mackin)TOSH. I wanted to scream "just get on with it and die" at Catwoman & give The Gladiator a little push.

As for the rationale that it's "opera", I reckon Verdi & Rossini had a far better handle on the show-stopping tune (aria)! And they were populists of their time.

The mawkishly melodramatic moments were made laughable by nostril-cam. And how come Fantine could sing her little heart out straight after her impromptu dental appointment?

At least I know you can survive a dunking in the Paris sewers without contracting typhus, sepsis or dysentry.

Jean-Pierre said...

In the final analysis, it comes down to simply you like Les Miz or you don't. I have always liked operas and operettas, in spite of shortcomings, which all have to one degree or another. IMHO, they are supposed to exaggerate emotion, so I was greatly moved by the performances, as were those who accompanied me. Given that Russell Crowe is not a singer as such, I think he did a creditable job. Hugh Jackman was outstanding and evoked emotion in the viewers. At the end of the movie, the audience stood and applauded. Obviously, some of the commentors here weren't in this audience, and that's a good thing.

John Kaiser said...

I've always loved the music, but beyond that, you nailed it correctly about all that's wrong with the movie. Bravo.

mrbuttonsisreal said...

Wait you said in your review that it was bad?
To be honest with a movie like this I dont believe movie critics should be the ones to review them
There are elements of this that are over those that arent music minded's heads
So for some people your review makes total sense
However for those who appreciate all the messages and emotions music can bring about
Everything from hope to misery it is a powerful production that is even better live when you can connect with the characters even more so
However the movie was impressive considering the fact that most of the actors didnt have the chops for what they were preforming
Aka Eddie Redmayne

t.p. said...

I'm a theatre professional. I saw Les Miz on stage 15 years ago. I liked the musical. I wanted to like this movie. It was bad to the point of me wanting to walk out. Your review was perfect. I am dumbfounded this thing is so popular among audiences and some critics. There is so much that is wrong with this movie, but the Russell Crowe apologists... his lackluster performance and vocals were as excruciating as the thud of Javert hitting that retaining wall. His work in this film alone should have kept it from an Oscar nod

Monty said...

Here's the thing: this is a musical in the classical sense. Before 1985, there were no dancing numbers in broadway musicals. Also when it originally opened, it was panned by critics, but people went to go see it. The critics began second guessing themselves. Just something to keep in mind.

Emilybird said...

I couldnt wait to leave the theater. I like musicals but not people singing there conversation. The picture was beautiful, I just disliked listening to it.

ROMAN said...

Call me low brow, but I thought Phantom of the Opera to be infinitely more compelling. The songs in Phantom were at least actual songs with melodies. Having seen it once, I remember four or five songs from it. I remember none from Les Mis. Not a one. Each song more boring and self indulgent than the last.

joe baltake said...

Monty! No dancing in Broadway musicals prior to 1985? Huh? Where on earth did you get that date? Sounds rather arbitrary. Ever hear of "On the Town" or "West Side Story," both dance-heavy, courtesy of Jerome Robbins? Ever hear of "Bye Bye Birdie" or "Gypsy"? Do your homework. -J

Luc said...

I can understand why you have avoided thing his that the theater for 20 years! Yes, yes, where's the dancing? Idiots made this thing. And, ytes, singing live in a movie is a big deal. ig deal when Bogdanovich did it back in '75! Having seen how long it can take to get about 20 seconds of usable film imagine how difficult and strenuous it is for the actors to achieve their scenes whilst singing too. And, yes, the film is wall-to-wall music but the people who created it aren't intellectual enough to appreciate or understand that what they made is decidedly not a musical.

cagtherine d. said...

Everyone! It's a movie for crying out loud. A bad one, of course, but still just a movie!

Scott Volpe said...

Let me say up front that I have seen this show ten times, between Broadway, Toronto, and the national touring companies in the US. It is a beautiful and moving rendition of the Victor Hugo book - the play, that is. As we know, the difference between a stage play and a movie is huge. On stage, the music is everything. Due to the distance of the audience, translation of the music means more than acting. But you can't hide from a camera. So acting WHILE translating the book was essential, and in that sense, Les Miserables, the movie, knocked it out of the park, for the most part. Agreed, Russell Crowe sucked, and simply should not have been cast. All others, especially Jackman, Hathaway, and Samantha Banks, were spectacular. You call Hathaway's rendition of "Dream" an Oscar grab. I call it a fresh, new, and realistic interpretation of a song that has been misinterpreted on stage all along. Jackman simply connected in the movie, in a way that stage leads never have.

I watched the movie with friends who had never seen the Broadway production. They wept openly throughout. Somehow, it reached its audience.ju

I do not begrudge you your opinion of the film. You didn't like it. That's fine. But I ask that you do not begrudge the opinion of those for whom the movie struck a nerve. Forgive us our middle-brow, simpleton resistance. This movie made a lot of money, and brought in audiences young and old. Something about it must have been right.

Coop said...

To A.N. who said, "Perhaps musicals in general are not for you unless it's something light hearted like "Mamma Mia."

Right, there is no dancing just like I wouldn't want to dance through your tragedies"

I would like to say that there was dancing in both Oliver! and Jesus Christ Superstar, but I don't think they could be called lighthearted. They weren't, however, the equivalent of swallowing the densest loaf of black bread ever baked after it had soaked a week in cod liver oil. They were dark, but entertaining.

Siobhan Skinner said...

Clearly you have no business critiquing this movie. By your own admission you never bothered to seed the stage production either. Which by the way is remarkable with a fantastic set that sits on a turntable. This is a wonderful love story that is wrought with tragedy, if it was a Shakespeare remake it would be no different.Yes it's dark, it was a dark time in history dance numbers would make no sense. This is an opera, you don't dance in operas.

ted said...

Thank you Joe baltake for your opinion on this movie which had no spoilers in it and it was your honest opinion. Your review helped my keep my eyes open before I saw it. However I did like this movie and the music in it.

vicky said...

This film definitely deserved Razzies for Worst Movie and Worst Singing (if there is such an award). Also for Most Inappropriate Accents (Cockney British? Were some of the characters in the wrong movie?)

beth said...

Love the stage production every time I see it, one of my favorites. The movie just sucks. I couldn't wait for it to be over.

Sass said...

Vicky - if you look up the actor biographies, many of them are from Britain and Ireland. Also, in movies and theatre the actors often utilize British accents when portraying characters from other European nations. Not to mention, there were many transplants in France from England and vice versa during this time. Read A Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Pimpernel for further reference on this subject.

Jorge Acevedo said...

I understand that you don't like the show and you are more than entitled to your opinion. But calling a body of work, such as Les Mis "a danceless musical" is just wrong. This type of musical is called an operetta, or "lght opera." It's by no means a show with big, extravagant dance breaks. THOSE are the kinds of musicals for the "middle-brow" audiences you speak of. This musical is meant for those who have a deeper understanding of musical genres and not for the general audience. Though, I do agree with you that the movie adaptation sucks. I highly suggest seeing it on Broadway, the way it was intended. I also STRONGLY urge you to study up on your musical theatre knowledge because these "half musicals" you speak of are actually just a different genre of musical. It makes my skin crawl when people critique the things they know nothing about. Put on Grease and call it a day.

joe baltake said...

Jorge- Ever hear of the adage, "Never assume"? (Because it makes an ass of both you and me.) First off, I dislike "Grease" as much as I loathe "Les Miz." Both are pretty bad but for different reasons. So you can use that put-down on someone else. Secondly, if you really knew anything about operettas, you'd know that dancing is a big part of them, but then "Les Miz" isn't an operetta. Frankly, I don't know exactly what it is - some bizarre hybrid, I guess. Finally, a question: Why do people who confront those who have different tastes by calling the other party "middle-brow"? If anything is middle-brow here it's that eternal tourist attraction, "Les Miz." -J

Sally said...

Hi, Joe. I like the fact that you respond to the postings here, nice touch. :) Rereading your review i can not really find such besides that you didn't like it - that's fine, everyone should have an opinion. Just saying. Or was this review meant as an anti-review? ;). (just trolling, ignore the last bit - cheers! ) :)