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 pre-recorded tracks, 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.
The live singing is but one part of Hooper's concerted effort to inject grit and verisimilitude into Les Mis — a lofty strategy that becomes folly late in the film, when 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. The more Hooper tries, the more storybook romanticism of the source material proves resistant 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. Loosely adapted from 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 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 similar 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 revitalized Broadway as a tourist mecca.
On stage, 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. On screen, 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). 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.
Yet it's hard to place too much fault on the direction of a movie that feels less like an exercise in filmmaking than one in careful brand management. Once upon a time, directors entrusted with bringing a popular work of theater or literature to the screen were allowed to be creative, to reshape and adapt as they saw fit. 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, the clear mandate is to cater to the base, and Les Mis is no exception.