‘Les Misérables’ and the End of the Movie Musical

I love musicals. I (mostly) can’t get enough of them! I realize that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but, then again, I’m not particularly fond of sci-fi or fantasy films, so, to each their own! But I think it’s time to come down hard on the new wave of musical movies that have managed to shimmy their way onto the big screen in the last decade. Yes, Les Misérables, you have put the final nail in the coffin of this dying genre.

Here’s the thing about Les Misérables: even the show itself is not that great. It was part of the new wave of musical theater in the ’80s in which spectacle took precedence over good writing. As a friend told me recently, “Les Misérables is so dull and boring that they had to put a giant turntable in the middle of the stage just to keep people awake.” I’d like to blame the British for this, particularly producer Cameron Mackintosh who, like Andrew Lloyd Webber, turned Broadway into a string of poperas with tolerable music intermittently coming from an orchestra pit filled with cellists and violinists who were scared for their lives as explosions and fire pits and chandeliers crashed above them on the stage.

So now it’s on film, and it is bad. Well, it’s fine. It’s just fine! For every good part of the film (Anne Hathaway, the sets, the costumes), there’s a lot of bad (Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, the direction, the cinematography, the CGI butterfly that director Tom Hooper seemed to think we would want to see as much as we’d like to hear Anne Hathaway’s sobs and dry-heaves during “I Dreamed a Dream”). It’s another example, of course, of the modern movie musical: overblown, overwrought, stuffed with moderately talented actors who, if not Autotuned, sound like they’re doing karaoke, and lacking any sort of levity and, well, fun.

But do movie musicals even work anymore? Perhaps they could, if only directors stopped trying to “turn the genre on its head.” The greatest movie musicals are, generally, joyous and and massive experiences: Singin’ in the Rain, The Music Man, West Side Story, The Sound of Music (which I begrudgingly include, as all of Rogers and Hammerstein’s catalog makes me want to rip off my own ears), Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver. In most cases, these great films were not somber occasions. Sure, a few of them have unhappy endings (for example, the exodus from Anatevka isn’t exactly cheery), but for the most part even a movie featuring singing Nazis can manage to leave an audience member in a good mood.

But remember in the ’90s when Evita was primed to bring back the movie musical? Madonna, who can sing and dance, couldn’t even make a melodramatic stage musical into a movie that wasn’t completely dull and dour. And then there were Chicago and Moulin Rouge, which are essentially musicals for people who hate musicals and, thusly, not to be respected. The former relied heavily on editing to give the illusion that its cast (other than Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is herself a seasoned stage actress) could dance, while the latter picked up on Broadway’s lead and just stuffed a bunch of already-popular songs into a musical narrative, because that way average moviegoers could say, “I know that song! And I know that song!” (This is why Glee is so popular and also so cloying.) I’m still blown away that even fans of musicals have accepted Chicago as a good film, even though it painfully pales in comparison to the postmodern anti-musicals Cabaret and All That Jazz, both of which take the conceit of putting all of the musical numbers onto a stage setting so that it’s not as jarring to the viewer. But Rob Marshall is no Bob Fosse, which I think the insufferably bad Nine proved just a few years after Chicago won Best Picture.

But as long as Broadway moves toward “serious” (read: somber) musicals, Hollywood will continue to adapt the crowd-pleasing shows into sub-par films. Tom Hooper, bless him, did his best with Les Misérables, and while I respect his decision to have his actors sing live, it mostly proved distracting. It’s one thing to see a natural singing performance on film, which is usually hindered by dubbing. But the singing should be pretty; it’s pretty much the foundation of musical theater. The sad fact is that it’s going to be pretty hard to get a good performer to be in a big-budget movie musical, because good performers are not famous enough to carry a film. If that were the case, we would not have seen (and heard) Russell Crowe desperately warbling through Javert’s numbers. Crowe himself defended Hooper’s vision, saying that he “wanted it raw and real.” But musicals are not real, because people do not burst into song accompanied by a soaring orchestra.

So what’s wrong with the movie musical? Well, we can blame it on a lot of things. The subject matter is too serious for an audience to suspend belief and accept that those sad characters would express themselves in light-hearted tunes. The Hollywood system has weeded out great talent, leaving the crop of A-list actors without the abilities to hit notes and land dance moves. Genre films aren’t respectable, so directors now eschew specific conventions for middle-of-the-road tactics to please as many audiences as possible. And we can’t forget the audiences themselves, whose attention span and gradual distaste for musical theater conventions have encouraged the demise of the genre. The bottom line is this: it may just be time that we accept the musical as a dying animal, and put it out of its misery rather than making it tap dance and fan-kick for our own entertainment. 

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9 Reasons Why You’re Going to See ‘Nine’ Over ‘Invictus’ on Christmas Day

On Christmas day, wars will be waged within families. Mothers, fathers, and prodigal sons will find themselves bitterly taking sides. Not about the all important Christmas ham vs. Christmas goose, but about what’s on the multiplex menu. On one hand, you have the big critically-acclaimed sports-political thing Invictus and on the other hand you have wonderfully over-the-top musical Nine. (Also, you have Avatar and Sherlock Holmes and, if dad always skips the movie, It’s Complicated.)

Invictus may have opened two weeks ago, but no other film coming out tomorrow can boast banal plot keywords like “politician” and “sports history.” Why is Nine the only other viable option? Because I said so. Here are nine reasons why you’ll overrule all your instincts and watch Nine instead of Invictus on Christmas day.

1. Rob Marshall. Sure he botched everything up with Memoirs of a Geisha, but Nine didn’t call for him to practice any racial sensitivity–so there were no instances of him casting Chinese actresses in obviously Japanese roles. Nine takes him back to a comfort zone that recalls the glory of his Chicago days. And this time, he doesn’t have the mealy-mouthed histrionics of Renée Zellweger’s Roxie Hart to sort through.

2. If you wanted to watch a feel-good sports film, you would save yourself the astronomical box office prices and just rent Rudy. End of story.

3-6. (In order of importance) Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Dame Judi Dench, and of course, Fergie, below.

7. Everyone knows that within accolades lie truth. Nine has snagged five Golden Globe nods; Invictus only got three.

8. An $80 million budget. But this isn’t a Sex & the City 2-like cash waste–the glamor appears on screen.

9. And lastly, Daniel Day-Lewis.

How Sophia Loren Saved ‘Nine’

At a blindingly star-studded press conference for Nine on November 15th at the Waldorf-Astoria (Daniel-Day Lewis, Fergie, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, all in the same room!), living legend Sophia Loren revealed to a star-struck group of reporters how she was responsible for the movie being made. Flanked by her admiring director Rob Marshall, Loren–who plays Day-Lewis’ mother, and is the only principal character not to have a music number–told the room she was very happy when Marshall offered her the role, but that she selflessly accepted for his sake.

“Rob told me he was not going to do the film without me. He was lying, of course.” Marshall interjected, assuring everyone he was deadly serious. Loren went on however, saying “For the sake of his career, I accepted. I said, It’s okay, I’m going to be in it, so don’t you worry.” Rob Marshall’s next film is Pirates of the Caribbean 4, and we have the strange suspicion that Johnny Depp will be joining him.

Nine Press Conference

I took an oath last weekend when I signed my name on a vaguely threatening contract provided by The Weinstein Company, assuring them I wouldn’t review or discuss the contents of Nine, their musical extravaganza and last-ditch effort at Oscar glory, until they lifted the so-called “emabrgo.” Normally these embargoes are gentlemen’s agreements between you and the studio’s publicity arm. They show you their movie early, and you write about it when they say you can. If you break that agreement, then you won’t get invited back, or in the case of Nine, you might get sued! Right now, the opinions on the movie is swimming around in the heads of about 150 members of the press, with only the date of November 26th (I think) able to set them free. And since I can’t share details about the film itself, I’ll let you in on something almost as major–it’s press day.

Nine is the reason the phrase “all-star cast” was invented. Based on Federico Fellini’s autobiographical film 8 1/2, it stars Daniel-Day Lewis as director Guido Contini, a world- class Italian director struggling to make his next movie. He’s caught in a midlife crisis of sorts, confronting his demons in the form of the various women in his life. These women are played by some of the best and most in-demand actresses of their generation: Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Kate Hudson, Marion Cotillard, Judi Dench, Sofia Loren, and in her major acting debut, Fergie. Between all them, there are seven Oscars. What made the press day so epic, as that everyone actually bothered showing up.

Press Junkets don’t always guarantee everyone’s presence. More often than not, someone is missing. Not yesterday. On the 18th floor of the Waldorf-Astoria in Midtown, it felt like an Oscars afterparty. In the hallway, Cruz and Kidman hugged. Cotillard and Day-Lewis chatted with Nine‘s producers. Even Loren, the living legend, mingled for a few. It was obvious this was their first time seeing each other since wrapping, and they were clearly loving it. When Daniel Day-Lewis entered his panel a few minutes late, the excitement level soared. The panel hugged and kissed him, the way you would at a reunion, and you realized it was the first time they’d seen him since production ended. It was surreal seeing Fergie the two-time Oscar winner. I never thought I’d see the singer of “My Humps” hug Daniel Plainview like they were old pals.

The press conference was split in two. The first one had Dench, Day-Lewis, Cotillard, and Fergie–along with Nine lyrics man Maury Weston and producer John DeLuca–answering questions with good humor, relishing their delight at being in each others company for the first time in a while. During the second one, when director Rob Marshall looked around him–Kidman and Hudson to his right, Cruz and Loren to his left–he said, “And this is just half the cast.” I try not to get star struck, but being in the same room as these greats made me feel, poor, ugly, untalented and completely anonymous. It’s the kind of sublime masochistic self-hate that only a cluster of true stars can inspire.