The Musical Phenomenon
Film release 2012. Highlights from the motion picture soundtrack. 21 Dec 2012
Due to popular demand Universal Music Australia moved the release date of the Motion Picture Soundtrack to Les Misérables forward. This earlier release meant I had the opportunity to review the music and the album before seeing the film. Hearing the music without the visual accompaniment turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it allowed me to get a true feel for the sound of the film and the emotional intensity of the acting without the distraction of what is likely to be some very sophisticated and creative cinematography.
The album is entitled ‘Les Miserables – The Musical Phenomenon: Highlights from the Motion Picture Soundtrack’. I will review each of the 20 tracks individually, and although this will make the review quite long, I think it is only fair in order that such an anticipated release is given appropriate consideration.
The tracks are compiled in chronological order, following the story line of the film. The number of songs, however, is greatly reduced (only 20) and is just a ‘selection’ of key numbers. Each of the songs has been lifted straight from the films' soundtrack, and since the orchestral accompaniment in Les Misérables is often continuous, many of the songs don’t have a neat start or finish. This clipping occasionally makes for a very short track, such as ‘Castle On A Cloud’ or ‘Drink With Me’, and gives a generally disjointed feel to the whole album. With the purpose of the CD in mind however, it is fair to say this is unavoidable and that the album itself is really best suited to people who have enjoyed the film first.
Track 1, ‘Look Down,’ opens with a wonderfully full orchestral sound as well some effective ambient sound effects. Russell Crowe is the first character voice we hear and he sounds a little forced, particularly when pitched against Hugh Jackman in the following phrase. My first impression on the audio alone was an over emphasis by Crowe at attempting to maintain the melody – sadly at the expense of believability. My feeling is that perhaps a lack of confidence in the operatic requirements of the original is coming through in the vocal. Jackman is generally pleasing in this opening track.
Track 2, ‘The Bishop’, is the first time we hear speech in place of singing; this departure from the original works well here. Again, the track starts with excellent ambient sound effects. The role of Bishop is sung by Colm Wilkinson, and on first listening I was quite uneasy with this casting. Wilkinson was the original Valjean when Les Misérables first opened. After repeated plays of the track I found his interpretation to be very gentle and eloquent, if a tad ‘elderly’ sounding. Unfortunately the last note, sung on “God”, was not as deep and rich as I had hoped.
‘Valjean’s Soliloquoy’ (spelt that way on my release) is track 3, and features Jackman as Valjean attempting to reconcile with his own feelings and actions. I found Jackman’s interpretation here to be well meaning and believable, but it was quite pitchy – particularly where speech and singing were closely married. It was certainly a relief to hear Jackman go for the really big notes and hold them solidly and confidently.
Track 4 is the first of the big ensemble numbers. ‘At The End Of The Day’ is sung by workers in Valjean’s factory all who are underpaid, overworked and at their wits’ end. The ensemble singing seemed more clipped than the traditional stage version might be – perhaps in an attempt to merge that feeling of speech. This did make some of the dialogue difficult to understand. I was pleased to hear that the harmonies have been faithfully recreated and sound wonderful. The filmic interpretation of this number has allowed for a more intimate and private feel in the conversations between the women. The Foreman however, sung by Michael Jibson, completely missed the mark for me. Jibson sang far to “nicely” and didn’t have the nasty edge required to make the audience truly hate him.
‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is track 5. It is, far and away, one of the best numbers on the whole album. The character Fantine reflects on her life, and actress Anne Hathaway gives her tonnes of emotional depth and range. Again the unique medium of film allows the audience to get very close to the character and gives us a truly personal (sounding) moment. Hathaway has no trouble with the musicality either, and finds the perfect balance between the song and the acting – reaching out and emotionally grasping those agonizingly beautiful notes that paint a picture of her pain on our soul.
Track 6 is ‘The Confrontation’ and represents quite a jump in the story from the last song. This number presents Jackman and Russel (Javert and Valjean) together in a multi layered exchange of passion and anger. Unfortunately Russel only gets worse for me here. I really struggled to believe that his birth in prison and life in the gutter meant anything to him – perhaps this will change for me when I am watching the action. Vocally however, I just could not buy it. Jackman is again quite strong, though I sense he is holding back to maintain an even keel with Russel. Not a fan of this number.
‘Castle On A Cloud’ follows. Performed by Isabelle Allen it is as good as any live version I have heard. The number is relatively nondescript amongst other tracks on the album. Allen sings true to the original melody and her performance sounds very similar to the stage version.
Track 8 is ‘Master Of The House’. Traditionally a very popular song from the show. In a marketing coup for the film the character of Thénardier is played by Sacha Baron Cohen; thus far the only actor to play his character with a definite accent. Baron Cohen is turning on his usual comedic charm by the sound of it, however the accent is all over the place – after starting British he makes a clean switch to French and then slowly migrates back and forth for the rest song - and it does makes some of the lyric a little inaudible. Hopefully the visual accompaniment will clarify what is being sung. It also sounds as if lots of business has been added to the number based on additional sound effects. Madame Thénardier is performed by Helena Bonham Carter. Bonham Carter sings well and sounds great. The whole number has great energy and I have little doubt that it will stand up to the usual level of popularity.
Track 9 is called ‘Suddenly’ and has been written specifically for the film release. Not a part of the original score, rumours say that the song was written with Hugh Jackman’s voice in mind. The number is basically a ballad for voice and piano – and it really does sound like a “Ballad for Hugh”. I am not completely sold on this track, it strays too far from the ‘Les Mis’ format which works so well at tying the rest of the production together. I may need to reserve my final judgement for the first viewing.
‘Stars’ is up next as track 10 and I was instantly nervous given the record of Crowe thus far. Wow, Crowe nailed the vocal. It is clear he has worked really hard on this song and I must say I was impressed. Maybe this is because of my initially low expectations, but melodically speaking he did a great job. Unfortunately (and I really wish I didn’t have to say “unfortunately”) the emotional point of the song was completely missed. Again I might have my mind changed by the visuals, but this recording sounded like a perfectly executed karaoke number - note perfect with no soul.
Track 11 is the ‘ABC Café’ and ‘Red And Black’. These songs are divine, and I cannot wait to see them on the big screen. The boys have wonderful voices, and by the sound of it we could easily be back on stage in a professional live production. This track will have fans of the musical heartily singing along with the familiar cadences and melodies of the musical. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Eddie Redmayne as Marius sing the hell out of ‘Red And Black’ and the ensemble work is a joy to listen to.
This moves smoothly into ‘In My Life’ and ‘A Heart Full Of Love’ (track 12) with Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Samantha Barks as Éponine and then Amanda Seyfried as Cosette. Barks’ voice is heart melting and had me eagerly looking forward to hearing ‘A Little Fall Of Rain’ (which doesn’t appear on this album). Redmayne’s Marius remains strong throughout and Seyfried gives Cosette a beautiful naivety in her vocalisation. Both numbers are sweet and wonderful – the final harmonisation of the three lives up to expectations.
‘On My Own’ (track 13) does give us a chance to hear the awesome sounds of Barks again, and she does not disappoint. There is an obvious balance being struck between the musicality and the ‘speech-y’ acting; Barks handles this perfectly. Barks’ Éponine really captures the real love and loneliness she is forced to suffer – no matter how many times I see this musical, her demise remains one of the saddest stories of all time.
Track 14 traditionally takes us to the interval – ‘One Day More’. Unique in its performance many of the characters join each other on stage (but not in each other’s company) to reveal their parts as they will unfold in the second half. I am interested to see how this is played out in film (perhaps with lots of cuts and location changes?). Vocally there is nothing to be disappointed about here. The orchestra sounds outstanding and the layering of the characters voices, including harmonies, is relatively faultless.
Track 15 brings another opportunity to hear the boys together again in ‘Drink With Me’. The song has been significantly shortened, with the voice of Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) replacing that of the ladies in the call and response section. It is understandable that this number was cut in length, but still a little saddening. Nonetheless the resulting song was excellently delivered.
‘Bring Him Home’ is track 16, and straight away Jackman absolutely goes for it, attacking the number in chest voice (rather than the traditional falsetto). Im not sure that I can see this fitting, in my mind, into the setting, but having not seen the film it is possible to assume this has been moved anyway. I wasn’t immediately at ease with this bigger, belted version – much of the gentle subtlety has been lost. I will have to reserve any further judgement for seeing the film.
Track 17 is ‘The Final Battle’. I found this an odd choice for a ‘highlights’ compilation, especially since songs like ‘Lovely Ladies’ and ‘A Little Fall Of Rain’ were left out. The whole track is just sound effects of the fight – gunshots and shouting played out over the score. This track is an orchestral highlight only.
‘Javert’s Suicide’ is track 18. Crowe is back and the karaoke styling is relentless. All of the notes are there, but I was just not feeling it. There is nothing more I can say on this track until I see the film.
‘Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’ (track 19), is a wonderful number in which Marius laments the loss of his friends. Redmayne incorporates much more speech in this song than previous numbers on the album. It works. The line that Redmayne takes through the number to a gorgeous moment of falsetto is inspired. This is another track where the balance of speech, acting and musicality has been perfectly balanced.
The final track on the album is the ‘Epilogue’. At 6 minutes 20 it is the longest and a fitting way to close out on the whole experience. It has been made up of the songs ‘Valjean’s Death’ and ‘Finale’ from the stage production. A lot of imagination is required to keep up with the action (unless you are already familiar with the show or have seen the film), but the lengthy dialogic lead up to the ‘Finale’ really helps to complete the experience.
My overall impression: I am seriously looking forward to seeing this show. My initial reservations about Russel Crowe’s performance have not been placated by this recording – but hopefully his visual intensity makes up for a lot of his lack of vocal intensity.
This album is not really aimed at anyone who has not seen the show before, and would best serve someone who has seen the film. The visualisations and memories from the film will really help to drive your enjoyment of the album. The 2012 release of Les Misérables sounds pretty good. Let’s hope it looks EVEN BETTER.
1: Look Down - 2:22
2: The Bishop - 1:34
3: Valjean’s Soliloquoy - 3:18 (spelt this way on the album release)
4: At The End Of The Day – 4:27
5: I Dreamed A Dream – 4:38
6: The Confrontation – 1:55
7: Castle On A Cloud – 1:11
8: Master Of The House – 4:51
9: Suddenly – 2:32
10: Stars – 3:01
11: ABC Café / Red And Black – 4:21
12: In My Life / A Heart Full Of Love – 3:12
13: On My Own – 3:11
14: One Day More – 3:39
15: Drink With Me – 1:41
16: Bring Him Home – 3:37
17: The Final Battle – 3:17
18: Javert’s Suicide – 3:00
19: Empty Chairs At Empty Tables – 3:12
20: Epilogue – 6:20