Les Misérables Coming “Live” to a Movie Screen Near You

September 21, 2012 at 4:00 pm 3 comments

In the spirit of our amusicological reboot, this:

As I always tell my students, live theater–especially the genre of the musical–relies on a certain suspension of disbelief.  I’m trying to hold the same for the forthcoming Hollywood adaptation of Les Misérables.

As thoroughly promoted in the “extended first look” of the film–out yesterday on YouTube–the “liveness” of the scenes sets this Broadway musical film adaptation apart from all of those that came before.  Apparently, all actors and actresses sang the score live while taping each scene.  In this trailer we see how this has been accomplished: An offstage piano accompanist provides a temp-track score, broadcast to a wireless inner-ear monitor that keeps the vocalists on pitch.  In the end, as musical director Stephen Brooker informs us, the piano will be magically “replaced by a seventy piece orchestra.”

It was a decade ago that the silver-screen adaptation of Chicago made waves when movie stars such as Renée Zellweger and Richard sang–gasp!–their own songs.  Both before and after, professional singers have given voice to characters in movie musicals.  Marni Nixon sang for Natalie Wood as Maria in West Side Story (1961); Elaine Tomkinson for Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music (1977); David Hidalgo for Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie Valens as in La Bamba (1987); even Drew Seeley sang for Zac Efron as Troy Bolton in the first High School Musical (2006).

Like Chicago, the upcoming film version of Les Misérables allows the faces we see on screen to match the voices that emerge from them.  The twist on convention this go around is the fact that the vocals we hear are not pre-recorded.  A film-musical cast typically records studio versions of all the songs (the audio) at a point prior to filming the scenes (the visual).  According to Eddie Redmayne (who plays Marius in the film), such a process forces the cast to make acting choices before ever stepping foot onto the set.  Allowing the actors to sing “live” in the moment frees them from such restrictions.  In theory, we should end up with an film-musical adaptation more natural and expressive than any ever seen or heard before.

This is where the suspension of disbelief comes in.  One artificiality of the film making process may be obscured, but others must step up to fill the void.  It is a “tail wagging the dog” situation.  Yes, the singers are “live” but now the orchestra must “lip-sync” along.

A few other questions arise:

1. What exactly is the role of the music director here?  If he isn’t also the accompanist–who has some agency in the vocal performance–how much control does he have over the actor’s choices?

2.  If there are multiple takes of a given scene, who chooses the final assemblage?  The actor?  The director?  The film editor?  Or, does this fall to the music director?  If multiple takes are sewn together what does this mean for the “liveness” of the staging?

3. This approach prizes the individuality of the performer, allowing them to play with tempo, dynamics, the spoken/sung delivery of recicative, etc.  Several of the most dramatic scenes in Les Miserables are ensemble pieces–including, as we see in this clip, a multi-story barricade in the middle of a square.  No way the audio from that can be live.  How will these be handled?

4. How much overdubbing of these “live” performances will need to take place in post-production?

Many more questions than answers at this point, obviously.

But, as you may be able to tell, I’m excited to see the film (already making plans to take a group of students when it opens several months from now).

I’m also excited to see what others think!  Please comment below…

Entry filed under: musicology, Ryan Raul Bañagale, Thinking Out Loud. Tags: , , , , .

Amusicology, Rebooted AMS/SEM/SMT Preview 2012


  • 1. Elissa Harbert  |  September 21, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Very interesting post- you raise some important questions. When I first saw this trailer last night, my initial thought was- haven’t film musicals usually been able to capture the excitement and spontaneity of bursting into song even with the technical illusion of lipsyncing to pre-recorded and edited performances?

    Then I found this blog post (re-tweeted by theater scholar Laura MacDonald) that makes this point well: http://www.kellimarshall.net/film/les-mis-live/

    I have great faith in Tom Hooper- he is responsible for the marvelous depiction of early America in the HBO John Adams miniseries, including some exceptionally good musical scenes that are by far the most historically plausible representations of early American music I have ever seen. So, I’m hoping Hooper will bring a high degree of all sorts of “authenticity” to this movie. Even if he doesn’t, it will surely bring joy to a whole lot of people.

  • 2. Ryan Raul Bañagale  |  September 21, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Thanks for the comments, Elissa.

    That post by Kelli Marshall is a pithy response to the trailer. The cast and crew does seem very pleased with itself for “pulling it off.” Time will tell.

    It is interesting that the film has already generated a bit of Oscar buzz off on this “extended first look” alone.

    One of the more interesting aspects of Philip Auslander’s well-known book on “liveness” is this notion that the entertainment industry consistently reinvents the concept of “authenticity” in order to maintain an interest in the live versus mediated event.

    This framing of “live” performance in the filmic version of Les Miserables strikes me as participating fully in that cycle.

  • 3. Matthew Roy  |  December 22, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    I’m just thinking as an accompanist, but grafting an orchestra onto an earbud piano accompaniment has to still take into consideration the excitement of accompanying what at one time was live. Just imagining being that pianist for the original takes reminds me of similar exciting/disastrous accompanying adventures.

    Only a few more days til it comes out!


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