Laurie Sparham/Universal Pictures/Associated Press
NEW YORK –At one of the first press screenings of the hotly anticipated film version of “Les Misérables” held last month before its opening on Christmas Day, magic struck at the half-hour mark.
With street-grimy rags and butchered hair, Anne Hathaway as woeful prostitute Fantine whispers, weeps and angrily wails her way through a single live take of one of the stage show’s signature anthems of suffering, “I Dreamed a Dream.”
It was real. It was raw. And it wasn’t pretty. But that is the point in this highly intimate and extreme close-up interpretation of “Les Mis,” with its restless camerawork awash in the blood, sweat and tears of A-list actors pouring their hearts out.
Arriving early in the 160-minute proceedings, the number works as a litmus test for whether moviegoers will buy into this almost entirely sung tribute to the downtrodden hordes of 19th-century France that took the best-musical Tony way back in 1987.
Not only did Hathaway, whose haunting rendition already has propelled her to the top of the list of likely supporting-actress Oscar candidates, instantly reclaim the heartbreaking ballad from the melodic clutches of reality show sensation Susan Boyle. She also caused a goodly amount of the preview attendees to break into applause – when they weren’t dabbing at their eyes.
“I’m so honored that people had that reaction,” Hathaway says when she learns of the response, the likes of which probably haven’t been heard in the land of musical cinema since a roaring Jennifer Hudson told us she wasn’t going in 2006’s Dreamgirls.
Never mind that Hathaway wasn’t there to savor it. “That it was illogical makes it even more wonderful.” In fact, she felt the same urge to clap after watching co-star Hugh Jackman as his runaway ex-con Jean Valjean valiantly vows to change his life for the better at the end of the prologue while Russell Crowe’s lawman Javert continues his relentless pursuit.
“My hands came together, but I stopped myself,” she says. “I was with about 10 people, and I didn’t want to be the only one in a small group. But now I wish I had because apparently it is happening.”
Take it as a sign that a musical warhorse has been resurrected and reborn. As a result, the unabashedly sentimental fable of strife, sacrifice, vengeance, love and redemption adapted from Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic novel and inspired by a real-life student uprising just might become the first of its genre to compete in the Academy Awards best-picture category since “Chicago” took the gold a decade ago.
Of course, the Mizfits – the moniker given to the most devoted of the more than 60 million people who have seen the production in 42 countries and in 21 languages – have been counting down the days ever since the movie was announced.
But while many early reviews of the film have been mostly positive, a few reveal not every critic is a pushover for such gilded melodrama.
Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly damned the effort as “faux-opulent,” adding that sitting through it made her “long for the guillotines.” Richard Corliss of Time was even more blunt: “This is a bad movie.”
C’est la vie. The second-longest-running musical in the world after “The Fantasticks” has survived worse, including weak notices when it first opened in 1985 in London. It has always been a musical by the people and for the people, after all. But the veteran talents behind this translation, including producer Cameron Mackintosh, the British theatrical whiz and the pop-opera specialist also behind “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” as well as the original creators Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boublil, are keenly aware that movie musicals do not live by the enthusiasm of zealots alone.
“We have to give them a reason to love the film,” Jackman says. “We couldn’t slavishly re-create the stage production. You want to be able to get through that screen, through that camera to the audience and allow them to have those emotional reactions you do with a musical onstage.”
And despite such post– “Chicago” successes as “Mamma Mia!” and “Hairspray,” movie musicals still are a risk at the box office. Just ask the folks behind such flops as “Nine” and “Rock of Ages.”
Just how did its makers attempt to convert those potential ticket buyers?
Here are three of their smartest can’t-miss “Les Mis” moves.
1. Hiring an outsider. Since when did director Tom Hooper, the British history guy who was nominated for an Emmy for HBO’s “John Adams” and won an Oscar for the 2010 best-picture champ “The King’s Speech,” become Mr. Musical?
“There is no Mr. Musical,” says producer Eric Fellner. “That was the question. Who the hell do you get to direct a musical? But after seeing “The King’s Speech,” you realized there was a piece of material that could have been very small. We thought the job he did was superb and figured if that is what Tom can do, then we should sit down and talk to him.”
2. Sing loud, proud and live. Other movie musicals have featured live singing before, including the little-seen “At Long Last Love.” Others have also been sung throughout, most notably “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Tommy” and “Evita.”
But “Les Misérables” is probably the first fully sung major movie musical – even the dialogue is done in operatic fashion save for a few spoken lines – performed completely live by its cast on camera instead of miming to a pre-recorded track. Hooper insisted on no lip-syncing and his producers agreed.
3. Cast a wide net. Old and young. Rich and poor. Depraved and saintly. With its considerable ensemble cast, there is at least one character for everyone to relate to. And the cast is similarly diverse. Established stars: Jackman, Crowe and Hathaway as well as comic relief from Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thernadiers, thieving innkeepers and guardians of Fantine’s daughter Cosette. Rising talent: Eddie Redmayne of “My Week With Marilyn” as student revolutionary Maurius and Aaron Tveit of “Gossip Girl” as dashing rebel Enjorias. Fresh faces: Samantha Barks, a discovery of Mackintosh’s making her film debut after playing Eponine in the West End production and on tour.
Most wisely, homage is also paid to the past with Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, playing the charitable bishop opposite Jackman, and Frances Ruffelle, the original street waif Eponine, who shows up as one of the Lovely Ladies.
But most agree that the MVP is Jackman. Mackintosh has been trying to make a movie out of the crown jewel in his collection of musical gems since the late ‘80s. But there is at least one reason he is glad he waited: “Did a Hugh Jackman exist 25 years ago who had that experience with both the stage with music and in the cinema?”
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