Taking the long view on popular music

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Do you hear the actors sing?

A story everyone needs to hear at least once.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine in "Les Misérables".

Les Misérables
dir: Tom Hooper

One of the most striking things about Les Misérables is the volume of tears it generates. These aren’t snivels but full-blown, tubeclearing excavations of the nose (I count myself here, I’ve seen it three times). It’s not the schmaltzy bits that make people cry – the song of the fallen woman Fantine (“I Dreamed a Dream”, as popularised by Susan Boyle), the sight of the urchin or the show’s wig-waving climax – but moments of greater emotional complexity: the happy death of the street-girl Éponine, or the ballad “Bring Him Home”, in which the hero Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) risks his life to save a young blade he’s never even met. In the Times last month, the theologian Ian Bradley recalled the Easter Sunday address in which Archbishop George Carey described Valjean’s early redemption scene (he is blessed by the bishop whose house he’s robbed) as “the finest description of grace outside the pages of the New Testament”. But even for heathens, the real thrill of Les Misérables is about watching one eye-popping gesture of human self-sacrifice after another and thinking, how can anyone be so . . . good?

Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation remains a hard sell for non-fans of musical theatre. For a start, it features Hollywood A-listers singing; many people are still haunted by the mahogany tones of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!. Second, the show is not exactly easy on the ear. It always felt, superficially, closer to opera than a musical, not just for its hefty themes and historical setting but for its sheer unwieldliness. The lines of exposition, written in French by Alain Boublil and translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, are often deliciously gauche and clunky: “There was a time we killed the king/ We tried to change the world too fast/ Now we’ve got another king/ He’s no better than the last.” Hooper’s decision to record the songs “live” has, as well as generating most of the film’s publicity, enhanced the music’s ragged, chaotic feel.

With tiny mikes shoved down their ear canals, linking them to a piano accompanist hidden somewhere in the corner of the set, the actors were in charge of setting their own pace for each song and occasionally, it seems, their own pitch. The fugal “Confrontation” between Valjean and his relentless pursuer Javert (Russell Crowe) – the first a piercing tenor, the second a throaty rock-and-roll voice – is just one of several moments in the show where you feel a bit like you’re trapped in a chicken run. But this is exactly what Les Misérables ought to sound like. It’s a brave production: Hooper could have sweetened the meal for the cinema but instead he’s made it even tougher.

The story, based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, takes place not during the French Revolution (a common misconception) but starts in 1815 and culminates in 1830’s June Rebellion, a damp squib of an uprising in which the Parisian populace failed to turn out and 93 students were killed.

The outdoor set gives Hooper – who cleaned up at the Oscars two years ago with his last film, The King’s Speech – an opportunity to close in on the theme of personal bravery over politics. In the stage show, the famous “barricade” looks like part of the action, a symbol of wider revolution.

On film, as all manner of junk is tossed out of shops and houses including, memorably, a couple of coffins, you realise just how small and ineffectual the real-life barricades were. When things get ugly, the good folk of Paris lock their doors on the rebels and leave them to the National Guard.

“Here’s a handsome, charismatic student on the street outside your house, saying all the stuff you want to hear,” said Hooper in a recent interview. “Would you actually let him in, with his gun, when the police are chasing him? No.”

There are various other moral grey areas explored more pointedly in the film than in the stage show. There’s a new song (“Suddenly”), commissioned from the original writers and inserted after Valjean’s adoption of the orphan Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), which explains that the child is the second redemptive moment in his life: character change, unlike in the movies, is a long, complicated process.

The villain, Javert, has been fleshed out too, with a new scene taken from the book in which he asks Valjean to punish him, convinced he’s been pursuing the wrong man. “People who are unforgiving and unrelenting to those in their professional life,” says Hooper, “are often even harder on themselves in private.” Funny to think that Les Misérables, among all those other things, is about a jobsworth maddened by the kindness of someone more at peace with the world than himself. See the film, or the show, or read the book, but this remains a story that everyone needs to hear once. Then maybe five more times, if it gets to you.

Les Misérables is released on 11 January