Music in Film: Do you hear the people sing?

Feature Ivan Radford 24 Jan 2013 - 07:55

In the wake of Les Misérables' success, Ivan takes a look at how the musical has reinvented itself in the modern era...

Do you hear the people sing? The refrain, bellowed by fans of Les Misérables whenever a French flag is in sight, was given a new meaning when Tom Hooper’s magnificent adaptation of the musical arrived in cinemas earlier this month. Because for the first time in years, we really could hear them - live, on camera.

It's an inspired decision by director Tom Hooper, who ignored the usual route of actors recording a track beforehand and miming for the cameras and instead gave them all an earpiece connected to a piano and told them to let their vocal chords rip.

The result? A cast full of people acting rather than lip-syncing - a raw edge often missing from studio song-fests. It's a pain in the eardrum for sound editors, who have to blend those live vocals with an orchestra track, recorded later to mirror their performance, but as anyone who's seen Anne Hathaway's mesmerising version of I Dreamed A Dream will attest, it's worth it.

"I had a dream my life would be," she blubs, more crying than singing, before virtually screaming, "so far from this hell I'm living!" You can't imagine the song being done any other way. And audiences seem to be responding: the film has topped the UK box office two weekends in a row, with packed screenings bursting into applause as well as tears. The cast are now even performing live at the Oscars ceremony, where the film is nominated for Best Original Song.

No wonder, then, that this “revolutionary” approach has been the main talking point of the film's awards and marketing campaigns - one 10-minute behind-the-scenes trailer accompanied practically every film that came out at the end of last year. “It was an amazing opportunity to do something genuinely groundbreaking,” said the director of The King’s Speech.

But in the world of movie musicals, it's far from the first time live singing has been used.

In fact, you only have to travel back a few years to 2007 to find Across The Universe, a film based around Beatles songs and featuring the unpolished strains of Jim Burgess and others. Director Julie Taymor has said that roughly 90% of the musical numbers were recorded live, a move that scored the movie bonus points in its mixed reviews.

The film suffered, though, not because of its untrained vocalists but because of its flimsy source material. The Beatles are brilliant, but that doesn't mean you need a film loosely stitching together their greatest hits. Still, the frequent naffness of jukebox musicals isn't a problem for most studios: in recent years, our ears have had to endure both Rock Of Ages and Mamma Mia, one more than the other.

But while no one could forget Pierce Brosnan's cries of "SOS!" as he murdered ABBA, The Bronhom helped pave the way for Hooper's Oscar contender. No Pierce; no Les Mis. At least, not as we now know it.

Mamma Mia joined a long line of musicals in the noughties that made a point of having its stars sing for themselves - a trend started by Moulin Rouge in 2001. "Can Ewan McGregor really sing?" Googled stunned audience members when it turned out that Obi-Wan Kenobi had musical Jedi powers. Since then, we've come to expect it. And so we've had the cast of Chicago, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd and even Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line stepping up to the mic.

Songs in films started to stand out because they were dubbed, rather than the other way round: Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose and Jamie Foxx in Ray drew attention when the stars were replaced by their real life counterparts. If either happened now, the question of dubbing over the actor wouldn’t even be raised.

Go back several decades to when musicals were a regular Hollywood staple, and dubbing was a relatively common thing. Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961), Deborah Kerr in An Affair To Remember (1957) and, famously, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964) were all taped over by Marni Nixon. It was only the actors who doubled as professional singers that escaped such a fate: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Bette Midler were the kings and queens of on-screen singing. If they were going to lip-sync, dammit, they would do it to their own tape. Some refused to record their vocals in advance altogether, leading, one could imagine, to Singin’ In The Rain-style shenanigans, with orchestras located just off screen and microphones hidden around the set.

What these stars and filmmakers realised was that any kind of pretence made things sound (and look) phoney. How else could Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? convincingly fall off a chair halfway through a musical number? Or Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn be interrupted by a noisy dog in Bringing Up Baby?

Now, audiences - and studios - may be starting to agree again.

A quick re-watch of songs that involve live singing and/or mime makes it painfully obvious the difference the technology can make.

Take Barbra Streisand singing My Man in Funny Girl, whose breathing and stifled high notes add an honest touch to the song until the syncing sets in:

Penelope Cruz sang for herself in Rob Marshall's Nine, but Pedro Almodovar’s Volver seemingly wasn’t ready to join the new trend for non-professional singers. Hands up if you can guess where Penelope ends and Estrella Morente's voice begins:

Madonna, of course, joined the list of singer-performers too with Evita, but while a large part of the film was lip-synced, Jonathan Pryce’s scene shows how perfectly live recording can work, allowing the actor to half-speak his lines, Alan Rickman-style:

Of course, live singing isn’t always a ringing success. Peter Bogdanovich loved the old-school method of musical making so much that he directed At Long Last Love in 1975.

Here’s how it turned out:

Woody Allen had more success with his own homage in 1993. Everyone Says I Love You, a lovely jukebox musical that put plot first, jazz standards second, features delightful turns from a young Edward Norton, Woody Allen, Julia Roberts and Goldie Hawn. The ensemble’s singing isn't live, but it's as natural as it gets. Hawn's voice was so good she was actually asked to sing badly on purpose so she blended in with everyone else. (Drew Barrymore, on the other hand, had no such luck; Allen dubbed her voice for the final release.)

So when you see Anne Hathaway collecting her Oscar while I Dreamed A Dream plays in the background, spare a thought for Drew Barrymore or Pierce Brosnan. Because the next time you see them in a musical, they may not sound like they used to. And if Les Misérables is anything to go by, that’s a good thing.

Do you hear the people sing? Yes. And from now on I can’t imagine hearing musicals in any other way.

What did you make of Les Mis?

You can read Ivan's last Music in Film column here.

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Films for households who have an overabundance of tissues and boxed Belgium chocolates, or to watch on long-haul flights with one's Ipod playing the entire Slayer back catalogue just for the comedy value. Anne Hathaway appearing to warble 'Mandatory Suicide' brings tears to the eyes.

Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream was sublime, but I would also like to point out Hugh Jackman's performance of Valjean's Soliloquy. It was beyond beautiful to watch the internal struggle of the character and as Jackman's voice breaks and he sobs out some of the lines I felt my heart bleeding with him.

I do think that some of the actor's were hit and miss in their performances, I didn't enjoy Jackman's Bring Him Home, nor most of Redmayne's performances (with the exception of Empty Chair's at Empty Tables) which is more to do with the fact that I can't stand the sound of someone singing from the back of their mouth/ throat.

Conversely I quite liked Crowe's Stars on the second viewing. I was able to enjoy it by looking at what he was doing with the character rather then expecting the power house performance of Philip Quast or Norm Lewis.

I just wish Russell Crowe had been able to sing. Anne Hathaway was simply remarkable.

Have you ever noticed how the lyrics to the chorus of Slayer's Dead Skin Mask fit really well with the melody to REM's Stand? You have to add the odd 'yeah' or 'woah' to fill out the line but its worth it for comedy value. Altogether now: 'Dance with the dead in my dreams yeah/Listen to their hallowed screams etc..'

Anne Hathaway was simply remarkable. Yep remarkably bad, shouldn't it be a requirement that people in a musical can actualy sing.

"You can't imagine the song being done any other way" yes I can and so much better.
Anyone who has seen it in a theatre won't be brown nosing this, oscars? Rasberrys more like

I have seen it and all I can say is "Good luck with that POV".

I'll be sure to pop back here following the Oscars to congratulate you on your "accuracy".

I don't know, it's a great and useful innovation, but I can't see it being done for every musical. Maybe more emotional ones like Les Mis, but I feel lighter ones will remain a back track affair

Peter Buck and Kerry King seperated at birth.

Well...I watched it but still couldn't figure out which one was Les and why he was so unhappy...........

Russell Crowe was playing a dour, miserable jobsworth bastard, and as such his singing was perfect. However, if you disagree I'm sure he will come to terms with your disapproval, possibly seeking solace in his huge fame and fantastic wealth

...and the Academy Award for 'Best Interpretation of a Slayer song in a French Pauper Musical' goes to...

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