Living without lip-syncing: Les Misérables and allure of singing on set

Abigail Stroman

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Firstly, if you haven’t seen Les Misérables yet, where have you been? Yes, the Oscar film race is demanding (the best film of 2013! until next week…). Yes, Les Misérables will take up three hours of your busy life. But honestly, it’s worth it. A word of advice though… get snacks.

Here’s why it’s worth it… aside from the epic tale of humanity and all that… live singing on set. And having seen the film, I understand why Tom Hooper went to the trouble. The result is less musical cliché, more acting with tone. It’s no more complicated than that. Having had musical training, I know how hard it is to deliver a song as if one is delivering a monologue (as you can tell from my slight change of career plan). But every single performer in Les Misérables pulls it off. Lines of music, how ever dramatic or inconsequential, are delivered in character, in the moment, and (mostly) in tune. While stage performers do this every night, and without all the many advantages of editing, the cast of Les Misérables must get some credit for managing such successful performances with the infallible nature of film hanging over their badly-shaven heads.

It is not just the individual character performances themselves that hold such power. It’s the respect that this style of performance garners which makes the film so gripping. During the film, I slipped out to get a cup of coffee (see? snacks) and saw something I have seen only a couple of times in my years of devoted cinema attendance: several hundred mesmerised faces, with several hundred mouths hanging slightly open in an expression of simultaneous rapt attention and astonishment. Seeing this reaction on such a large scale was all the evidence I needed to realise that the audience appreciate the effort. They marvel over the talent. If you’ve ever left a live performance surrounded by cries of “did you see that?” and “I can’t believe he did that!” then this is something you too have witnessed. Les Misérables  has this effect. The audience is able to witness the performers’ full range of talent; talent which, so often in Hollywood, is glossed over with CGI, sound effects, and lip-syncing.

So pay attention Hollywood: your audiences appreciate raw talent. They appreciate actors’ pushing themselves to the limit. They may even appreciate the occasional bum note. Gloss may be easier to polish, it may protect what’s underneath, it may even hide a few flaws. But you know what? A couple of flaws here and there create character. And character is what it’s all about.

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