How Groundbreaking Is the Live Singing in Les Misérables?

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 21 2012 12:11 PM

Will the New Les Misérables Be Groundbreaking?

les mis
Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables

Universal Pictures

In a new extended promo for the upcoming adaptation of Les Misérables, the director (Tom Hooper) and his cast (Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, et al) gush enthusiastically about the making of the film, focusing in particular on one unusual aspect of it: “Every single person is singing every take live,” as Russell Crowe says. Rather than pre-recording the songs with an orchestra and then lip-synching on set—a common practice during the golden age of the Hollywood musical—the actors were given ear pieces that fed them a piano accompaniment while they sang. Hooper and company insist that recording all of the vocals on set is a new thing; Anne Hathaway, says, “This is the first time anyone’s ever tried it like this,” and Hooper calls it “groundbreaking.”

But is it really?

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Not exactly. Even if you eliminate non-narrative concert and experimental films—which typically record vocals live—there are movie musicals that counter Hooper’s claim. As film scholar Lea Jacobs explains, musical numbers at Paramount Studios were recorded live on set “whenever possible” as early as 1931, and RKO recorded singers live—accompanied either by a live orchestra present off-screen or a recording of the score—until 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. Compare Hooper’s Les Misérables to 1932’s Love Me Tonight, for instance, which recorded the full orchestra and the vocals simultaneously while filming, and you see that the new film is not quite as innovative as they’re suggesting.

It’s also fair to wonder at this point how much of the live singing will make it into the final cut. During the filming of Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep insisted on singing live—but, as director Phyllida Lloyd later explained, the movie only included some of those vocals. Much of what audiences heard was a “blend” of live and re-recorded singing. Considering the sleek design of this Les Misérables—and the imperfect vocal abilities of Amanda Seyfried—it will not be surprising if the live vocals are partly masked with post-production mixing and overdubbing.

Even so, live singing would still provide clear artistic advantages. As cast member Eddie Redmayne says, when you record the soundtrack in advance of filming, “You have to make all your acting choices three months before you’ve even met the actor you’re working with.” Hooper’s approach allows the actors the “spontaneity of normal film acting.” Live singing should help the actors appear emotionally invested in their characters during the songs—even if, in the end, the only live vocals we truly hear from them come from this short promotional clip.

Thanks to Professor Jonathan Kahana at UC Santa Cruz and Professor Jacob Smith at Northwestern University.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.