Recently, pop singer Adam Lambert unleashed a series of tweets critiquing the vocal performances in the film adaptation of Les Misérables. “Visually impressive with great emotional performances,” he said. “But the score suffered massively with great actors PRETENDING to be singers.” Russell Crowe, who plays brooding antagonist Inspector Javert—and who has received his fair share of vocal critique—responded with equanimity, tweeting that while he understood the singer’s view, director Tom Hooper wanted the live singing to be “raw and real.”
It’s true that the movie’s singing is more “raw” than it might have been with more polished, professional singers in the cast. But the idea that such singing is more “real” reflects a stigma that seems out of place when discussing a genre as full of artifice as the movie musical. Lambert argued on Twitter that Hooper should have cast better singers, but there’s another method that has worked brilliantly in the past and should not be frowned upon: Movie musicals should go back to letting its stars act, while dubbing the songs with trained vocalists.
In a show as technically difficult as Les Misérables—in which nearly every single line is sung, not spoken—interpreting the music is as essential to telling the story as being able to act. In Hooper’s version, there’s a wide range of artistic strengths on display—Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and even the widely touted Hugh Jackman, while visually arresting, leave much to be desired vocally. Samantha Barks, who plays Eponine and has mostly a musical theater background, sings beautifully—but does not convey emotion on screen the way those others do. Only Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne manage both talents with aplomb.
I don’t fault Hooper for choosing stars with screen presence over those who can handle the musical material. It makes sense commercially as well as, to some degree, artistically, and it has traditionally been the approach for those making Hollywood musicals. In the last 30 years or so—roughly during the “rockist” era of music criticism—dubbing has been disregarded as inauthentic. During this mostly fallow period for Hollywood musicals, a handful of films, from Everyone Says I Love You to Mamma Mia!, have tried reviving the form with non-singers. And in rare cases, as with Rent, an adaptation has maintained most, if not all, of its original stage performers in an effort to stay true to the show, even if their screen-acting skills were unproven. But whatever is gained in “authenticity” in either case is usually lost in sheer aesthetic quality.
The history of the movie musical shows that such “realism” is unnecessary. Classically trained singers like Betty Noyes, Betty Wand, and Marni Nixon made careers out of singing for some of Hollywood’s most famous actresses, including Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron. One of the greatest movie musicals, West Side Story, dubbed three of its leads—Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and Rita Moreno—because their voices weren’t trained for the operatic score. The film was better for it. (Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris, whose singing was not dubbed, had less challenging vocal parts.) Similarly, the men behind Singin’ in the Rain, a movie partly about dubbing in the movies, had no problem dubbing Debbie Reynolds for a couple of songs. The King and I, Gigi, and My Fair Lady are other prominent musicals that used dubbing without shame.
Musicals that require simpler vocals, like Chicago or Hairspray, are not as difficult to do with Hollywood actors who can sing. But there are few performers who are equally captivating on the stage and screen. Liza Minnelli and Barbara Streisand are perhaps the most famous current examples, and neither has done a movie musical in years. Bernadette Peters, a wonder on stage, has never truly come to life on screen.
Hooper’s vision of “raw and real” performances makes intuitive sense, but it flies in the face of filmmaking craft. You’re always depending on artifice, and “fake” methods can produce real emotions in filmgoers. In the case of Les Misérables, a little more fakery would likely have made me feel quite a bit more.