Saturday, December 22, 2012

Less Miserable About Les Mis Soundtrack

Cover of the Les Misérables highlights album (Source: Amazon).
Casting actors rather than singers in movie adaptations of musicals are always at best a necessary evil. Les Misérables has been one of the most anticipated musical adaptations of all time, and a lot of emphasis has been put on acting and pulling out emotion over singing. Unlike the usual filming process of recording tracks months before shooting begins, Tom Hooper's adaption of the world's second longest running musical featured actors singing in realtime on the set and then mixing an orchestra to suit the product after. Claims from the actors insinuate that this 'revolutionary' method allows more flexibility and emotion to be put into the singing, but the reality is that few manage to pull it off properly. Despite fantastic new orchestral arrangements and some wonderful chorus works, there is too much 'acting' in the singing, too many lacklustre singers and bad mixing really detract from what could have been an excellent recording - there are some great moments, however.

At the helm of the recording is Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, and he's just bad. He's acceptable on shorter passages and in songs that don't require such strenuous vocal demands, but star moments like 'Bring Him Home' and 'Soliloquy' are laden with dreadfully nasal vibrato it's unbearable, and he sounds like a squeaky puppy in phrases on 'One Day More' - he's also the worst contender for blubbering through lines and drawing out the emotion too much. Russell Crowe is awful - while no-one was expecting him to be Philip Quast, his gravely part-time rock voice is totally unsuitable as he lacks the vocal power that the role of Javert demands, but his timbre makes it sound as if just sounds like he is shouting as he clambers though 'Stars' and Suicide. It's remarkable how unmelodious his voice is, and shocking how amateur they both sound.

Elsewhere the cast are fine. Eddie Redmayne is surprisingly nice as Marius and Amanda Seyfried's voice is thin but lovely for a quiet Cosette, both are appropriately toned down for the movie but Seyfried is barely present on the recording. The same goes for Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, who have the usual unremarkable vocal skills but communicate a good performance through the Thénardier characteristics. The two singers who have performed their respective roles on stage are less than stellar - Samantha Barks returns with her signature wooden-but-pleasent Éponine, as does Aaron Tviet as a passable-but-boring Enjolras who lacks any presence and authority since he sounds significantly demasculinized (look up David Thaxton for a good idea of how the role should sound). The star of the recording is Oscar touted Anne Hathaway as Fantine, who shreds 'I Dreamed a Dream' with ineffable passion and such conviction it's simply breathtaking. While she's not the definitive Fantine, her performance communicates an immensely impressive equilibrium which balances the harrowing anguish and pain of her character with a sensitive delivery of tone and melody.

The gimmick of having the singing live translates poorly from the screen to this recording, and while it's apparently a revelation when it comes to filming, it rarely works to add to the independent musical experience. There are some awful musical decisions such as in 'Castle on a Cloud', where The Grudge graces us with an appearance to cackle "COSETTTEEEE I LOVE YOU VERY MUCHHH" in our ear - it sounds absolutely terrifying out of context. On the other hand, the revised orchestral arrangements are incredibly vibrant, sumptuous and thrilling. Disregarding the vocals, 'Confrontation', 'Look Down' and 'The Final Battle' have never sounded so exciting, nor arrangements like 'In My Life', 'Red and Black' or 'Javert's Suicide' so luscious.

Regardless of both positive and negatives, the recording isn't the most pleasant listen because the mixing is, unfortunately and predictably, awful. The wonderful orchestra is captured perfectly but the recording is marred by the vocals, which are captured with only basic microphones. The result means that there is a lot of hissing and scuffs, with extraneous noises featuring, like people kicking furniture, scuffs of shoes, and over dramatic breathing and lipsmaking. It sounds as though there has been no processing or editing of the vocals - there's not even a basic reverb to unify the numerous tracks together, and it would have greatly improved their placement in the mix - it's very unprofessional and it's irritating to listen to.

There have been some revisions and rearranging to the lyrics, and while they don't do anything major like change the meanings of the song, they're also so minor it didn't really seem necessary (ie. In 'At The End of the Day' - "The winter is coming on fast . . ." becomes "The plague is coming on fast . . .". What's the point? Winter sounds more poetic anyway). 'Suddenly', the new song composed in a scramble to win the Oscar for Best Song, has the complexity of a Christmas carol and is totally unnecessary to the story (if anything, a song should have been written for Cosette). It's not really anything memorable, and I hope it never gets added to the stage show.

All that aside, there are highlights for the CD. Anne Hathaway's incredible rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream' is the jewel of the album, and anything with the chorus included is wonderful - 'At The End of the Day' and 'Red and Black' are magnificent. 'The Final Battle' is riveting with the sheer grandeur of the orchestra, and for the sake of nostalgia 'One Day More' is fairly good. My absolute favourite track is the 'Epilogue' which, despite its imperfections, is a luminous adaptation which features an elegant and beautiful orchestra arrangement, thunderous chorus, and includes - finally - the Bishop in Valjean's final moments (I can't describe what that means to me).

All in all, I'm less miserable about the soundtrack than I thought I'd be. There are some awful performances from some of the most prominent actors including Jackman and Crowe, but there are some acceptable performances and Hathaway absolutely steals the show with her rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream', all backed by some glorious orchestration. While mixing is horrible and very amateur, when properly done the chorus shines, and there are a few great moments. This is also only the highlights album, so you can expect another deluxe collector's special Asian limited edition to come out featuring all the tracks at double the price. I'll probably buy that one too. All in all, if you're a fan of the musical then you'll be a sucker for this CD regardless. If you're a fan of the movie and love blindly following crazes, you'll probably like this too. If you enjoy singing rather than acting, perhaps not so much.

The 'Les Misérables' Highlights album is available worldwide December 25th, and is currently available on iTunes. Available on physical CD and digital download.

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