Stage to Screen: Live Recording in Les Misérables
As 2012 came to a close, audiences rushed out to purchase the Les Misérables soundtrack in anticipation of the musical’s film adaptation. The show was world-renowned; logically, its film would deliver a breathtaking score, complete with the vocals of the much-loved Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. Although the soundtrack sold well, many were disappointed with the less-than-grand vocals that emanated from car stereos and home computers. Perhaps listeners were expecting the classic vocals from the original London production, or else the more recent, celebratory sounds of the 25th Anniversary Concert. Regardless, the album was not what was expected; it was, after all, the soundtrack to a film, albeit one based on a legendary musical.
Adapting a musical into a film can be problematic. The difficulty lies mostly in the performances, from casting to post-production. Ordinarily, actors are chosen for their star-power; famous Hollywood actors will draw more to the box office than unknown Broadway veterans. Additionally, vocals of stage caliber are often too big for or seem unnatural on the screen. These factors can often lead to subpar singing that, as if it is not already poor enough on its own, is modified after recording to correct pitch, volume, and even rhythm. The resulting sound is computerized, unnaturally perfect, and marginally inhuman. The average moviegoer will not usually notice, but listening to the sound alone exposes the performance’s lack of integrity.
A lack of realism was not what made the Les Misérables soundtrack less than expected, however. Director Tom Hooper made the decision to record the vocals live, rather than doing so before filming. He hoped to allow the actors more freedom in their performances. Each member of the cast wore an earpiece that connected to a pianist who played the accompaniment to their songs on set; the actors, then, were in control of the tempo and delivery of the music in that moment, instead of being married to what they had previously recorded. Simon Hayes, the production sound mixer, carefully employed microphones that could capture each breath and note from these aurally nuanced performances. It sounds much more realistic than other movie-musical recordings. It also seems to hone back to traditional onstage musical performances; the original performers of Les Misérables have been singing onstage along with the orchestra every night, hearing the music and deviating from it accordingly.
Yet the film actors take much more liberties with Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score than those from the stage. Hooper achieves the more spontaneous performances he had hoped for, as well as imparts the musical with a new sense of realism. This truthful feeling is in part because the human sound the audience hears is literally what was on set that day, and what the audience sees. Choruses, such as the group of women in “At the End of the Day,” are perhaps less strong and appealing to the ear, but the sound matches what the viewers see, much like a live performance. During the swordfight between Valjean and Javert, their sung phrases cut or break as they lunge at one another, giving a much more realistic effect than if their vocals were consistent and unaffected by all that physical activity. Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, often borders on dialogue with his melodies, or else speaks them straight out, even whispering. While this makes it more natural both to hear and see, it is also more accessible to audience members who might be put off by the sung-through nature of the show.
Les Misérables is, after all, a musical driven by its characters and their individual moments and performances. Anyone can name a number of iconic songs for several characters; their solos are equally or even more important than the interactions and actions of the story. It seems appropriate that Hooper put so much importance on his actors’ performances. He made the careful choice of casting screen actors who had onstage singing experience and could handle the difficult vocals of the score, most notably Hugh Jackman. It is Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” however, that truly makes the film, and secured her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress that year. Hathaway managed to take a song that had been performed dozens of times by a variety of actresses onstage and made it fresh. It is an ugly rendition, in which she sobs, verges on shouting, and provides little vocal strength. Beneath that, she is giving a truthful performance, one that has never been seen in a theater before. She was only afforded this opportunity because of the live recording techniques Hooper envisioned. It is far from Broadway, yet striking and exemplary of the spirit of Les Misérables.
While singing live works in Hathaway’s favor, other performers saw less success with this technique. Most critiqued was Russell Crowe, whose interpretation of Javert was never very inspired, and whose vocals fell flat. This letdown could be attributed to the iconic nature of his role; Javert is one of the more powerful parts of Les Misérables, one that demands a talented vocalist and intense performance. Crowe paled in comparison. Because little was altered dramatically in post-production, Crowe sounds natural, yet dull. While the on-set recording was able to capture the emotional brilliance of Jackman and Hathaway, it also served as a very exposing element. There was no room for the magic of post-production and auto-tuning here; the film presented Crowe naturally, and he fell through.
A similar phenomenon occurs in the case of Amanda Seyfried. She plays Cosette, the young ingénue who is gifted, or perhaps cursed, with carrying the soprano notes of the score. It is extremely difficult to sing notes in this register and pull them back; the natural vocal inclination is to sing such pitches loudly and decadently. It actually takes a highly skilled soprano to sing a part such as Cosette’s quietly. Seyfried is not as skilled as the audience might have hoped, and in an attempt to scale her part down to film standards, she weakens her own voice. The transition to film for this part in particular is difficult. Alternatively, Samantha Barks, the stage actress behind the role of Eponine, does what Seyfriend attempts with success. Barks was able to tailor her performance to the screen while still sounding strong, natural, and breaking the heart of every audience member.
Despite her musical expertise, listening to Samantha Barks’ rendition of “On My Own” in the film is much less exciting than hearing her in concert at Les Misérables’ 25th anniversary. This disparity is evidently the result of the scaled-down performances. When viewing a film, the audience is much closer to the subject than when in a theater attending a musical. Hooper takes advantage of this fact, and the live recording is conducive to his up-close perspective. The camera and sound of Les Misérables brings us much nearer to the action and characters. Being so close is what allows us to appreciate the beauty of Anne Hathaway, but also exposes the weakness of Russell Crowe. Perhaps this perspective is what makes it so hard to separate the music from the film. The sound is really a product of the performances we see, tied inextricably to the movie itself. Listening to the soundtrack of a score that has been practically rewritten by its actors is like listening to a movie; it might be entertaining and insightful, but it doesn’t compare with watching the film itself. Some might argue that we should want to listen to the soundtrack of a movie-musical as much as watch it, due to its nature as a musical. Yet this is clearly the film adaption of Les Misérables, not the recorded concert. Tom Hooper has isolated his work to stand on its own through the use of on-set recording.
The reputation and up-close realism this method has achieved will certainly put it into conversation for future musical-film translations. The viability of on-set singing for future movies, however, will depend on the nature and production of the films themselves. Careful casting must be employed to find that delicate balance between film actor and vocal technique, which is no easy feat, considering these performers are few and far between. Here, Hooper’s on-set singing method works because of the nature of the source material. Les Misérables is not a musical about great singing, though great singing is certainly a part of its tradition. Rather, it is about the extremes of the human condition, which is why this down-to-earth sound is successful. The dialogue and melodies intertwine to give us a much closer look at the characters that have previously been seen from afar in London and on Broadway.
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