You can hear the people sing — really hear them — in the long-gestating screen version of that Broadway juggernaut Les Misérables. Countering the standard practice of having the actors in a film musical lip-synch their songs to prerecorded tracks (a.k.a. "playback"), director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) insisted that all of the singing in his Les Mis happen live on the set, in the moment, with hidden earpieces allowing the actors to hear the orchestrations. The result is a movie musical unlike any you've heard before: Real voices emerge in real time, complete with assorted tremors, gasps for breath and other "imperfections" of the sort typically smoothed away in the studio. The quality of the sound recording is exceptional, too, as crisp as in the best concert films and live albums. Inevitably, you wonder what the likes of My Fair Lady, West Side Story and The King and I would have sounded like if they'd been made this way, and without the reassuring soprano of Marni Nixon emanating from their leading ladies.
The live singing is but one part of Hooper's concerted effort to inject grit and verisimilitude into Les Mis — a lofty strategy that has become folly by late in the film, when the proletarian hero Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) sloshes through the sewers of Paris with the body of the wounded revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) slung across his mighty shoulders, both men caked in human excrement. For the more Hooper tries — and oh, how he tries, ratcheting the filth amp to 11 and shooting almost everything with an arsenal of wide-angled, handheld cameras — the more the moist-eyed storybook romanticism of the source material proves resilient to his efforts.
It's doubtful, after all, that realism — or any semblance of it — is what audiences were seeking when they turned British über-producer Cameron Mackintosh's 1985 stage production into one of the biggest of all musical-theater blockbusters. Liberally inspired by Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, Les Misérables the musical first entered the world as a French-language concept album by composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg — and a concept album it very much remains, with Hugo's panoramic study of the underclasses between the end of the French Revolution and the failed Paris uprisings of 1832 here boiled down to a series of noble peasant heroes, cardboard villains and star-crossed lovers belting out sound-alike anthems about the resilience of the human spirit. Developed by Mackintosh into a full-scale English-language production that premiered on London's West End in 1985 (where it is still running), Les Mis arrived in New York two years later, on the heels of the Mackintosh-produced Cats and just ahead of his Phantom of the Opera — the "British Invasion" trifecta that, at a low ebb for original American musicals, revitalized Broadway as a tourist mecca.
Onstage, Les Mis has about as much to do with Hugo as Rent has to do with Puccini, but it has undeniable kitsch appeal, with its own literal pièce de résistance — an enormous rotating barricade — in lieu of Phantom's plummeting chandelier. Onscreen, there are fewer pleasures, though the opening moments are undeniably impressive in an old-fashioned, epic-monolithic way, as the camera drifts up from underwater to reveal Valjean and a chain gang of prisoners hauling an enormous ship into port under the crash of waves and the glower of the police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Later, when a paroled Valjean jumps bail and flees through a snow-capped mountain expanse (actually Gourdon, in the South of France), the film exudes a wide-open physical grandeur not often seen in musicals — save for the few, like Fiddler on the Roof, shot on real locations instead of studio sets. There are a handful of other show-stopping moments along the way, though I'm not sure if the most discussed of them — Anne Hathaway's rendition of the tortured ballad "I Dreamed a Dream" — stops the show for the right reasons. The impassioned lament of Fantine, a fired factory worker forced into prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter, "I Dreamed a Dream" is already emotional pornography of the first order, made more so by Hathaway's borderline hysterical interpretation, all bulging eyes and hyperventilation, as if Hooper were shouting "More! More!" into her earpiece. Is this realism or the precursor to spontaneous combustion?
Yet it's hard to place too much fault on the direction of a movie that feels less like an exercise in filmmaking than in careful brand management. Once upon a time, directors entrusted with bringing some popular work of theater or literature to the screen were allowed to be creative, to reshape and adapt as they saw fit. And the audiences that lined up for Cabaret and The Godfather and The Exorcist instinctively understood that they wouldn't be seeing a scene-for-scene, page-for-page translation of the source.
But in today's Hollywood, where "pre-awareness" reigns supreme and the rights-holders of underlying properties retain ever more say in the adaptation process, writers and directors are increasingly reduced to the level of corporate lackeys. Occasionally, a filmmaker will still be given major leeway to reinvent a well-known character or franchise, but more often — whether it's Twilight or The Hunger Games or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the clear mandate is to cater to the base, and Les Mis is no exception. Try as Hooper might to make the movie his own, the only real changes he has been allowed are cosmetic and stylistic, and even smeared in shit, Boublil and Schönberg's gleaming icons can not be dulled. The dream lives, but this movie remains in chains.