Sunday, March 31, 2013

Visually Unimpressive, Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert Is Only For The Die-hard Fans.

The Good: Amazing vocals, Great songs, Moments of performance
The Bad: Utterly uninspired direction, Poor visual presentation
The Basics: Musically amazing, the Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert is a visually unimpressive experience for fans to pick up on DVD or Blu-Ray.

For Easter, my wife and I had a little French day. I made her French toast for breakfast, we kissed a lot, and I presented her with a gift: Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert on DVD. As I understand it, this 1985 performance from the Royal Albert Hall was part of the BBC’s (and PBS in the United States) Great Performances television series. It is presented on DVD as a single concert experience and it is the closest I could come to fulfilling one of my wife’s lifelong dreams. As a young person, my wife, who was already a Les Miserables fan was denied inclusion in a family trip to see Les Miserables at a local college. It absolutely stymied me that the original cast, including Colm Wilkinson and Philip Quast came to the backwoods of Michigan where we now reside, yet it did and my wife was not allowed to go with her siblings to the production and that just left me steamed. So, I – lacking a time machine – decided to do the next best thing to taking her to Les Miserables, which was I picked her up the DVD of Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert. She may not be able to see Les Miserables with her dream cast in person, but now she can see it any time she wants at home.

Watching Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert now was a somewhat ironic experience for me. Since I met the woman who would eventually become my wife, we have listened to the soundtrack to the Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert (reviewed here!) in pretty high rotation on road trips. So, I was pretty intimately familiar with this soundtrack from years of listening to it. Between that and seeing the new version of Les Miserables (reviewed here!) together multiple times, I figured that the benefit to picking up Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert was that we would get a very different presentation of the musical play.

Unfortunately, we did . . . and we didn’t.

It is worth noting upfront that my wife, an absolute die-hard fan, had the transcendental experience I hoped she would when we watched this together today.

I, however, did not.

Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert is, as its name implies and I lived in denial of almost the entire film, a concert, not a play. The difference is all the difference. For more than 95% of the film, the performers on stage are not interacting. In fact, most of them are not even physically emoting with their performances. Instead, this is, for the bulk of the production, individuals standing in front of microphones singing to an audience (not to camera). While there are moments where that is fine, for the bulk of the film, it is tragically dull and at moments when characters are supposed to be presenting dialogue through song back and forth to one another, that they are not looking at one another and interacting is utterly droll.

For those not familiar with Les Miserables, the story spans more than thirty years, climaxing in the French Revolution. The play, based upon the classic Victor Hugo novel, tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man convicted of stealing a loaf of bread and running from the law. Paroled after decades in prison, Valjean finds life on the outside too difficult and steals silver from a Bishop, who lies and exonerates him to the law (in fact, he gives him silver candlesticks on top of the silver he stole). Seeing this as an opportunity to reform, Valjean throws his papers away and changes his name to start a new life.

After becoming mayor and factory owner of a small town, Valjean (under his assumed name), lets his foreman deal with a fight at his factory, which results in his worker, Fantine, turning to prostitution. When Fantine finds herself in trouble, she is defended in an unlikely way from the police officer, Javert, who has been hunting Valjean for breaking parole. Exposed, Valjean runs again after Fantine dies, but this time to make good to Fantine by rescuing her child, Cosette, from the family she stays with. Years later, with revolution upon France, Javert continues to hunt Valjean and he aids the conservatives against the rebels in Paris. But there, among the revolutionaries, Cosette falls in love with the rebel leader, Marius.

Les Miserables is a great story with vibrant and compelling characters, but one would not know it by watching Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert. Sadly, because the performers are rooted in front of their microphones for most of the film, they do not interact. Javert’s death, for example, is left entirely up to the imagination of the viewer. This is not to say that Philip Quast, who sings the role of Javert, is not wonderful – he is. But the death of Javert is Quast singing the part and looking up, before the spotlight on him fades.

Before my head gets bitten off, all of the vocalists are absolutely amazing. Colm Wilkinson is predictably great presenting Jean Valjean and he and Quast have voices that play off one another masterfully. Ruthie Henshall is impressive as Fantine and Lea Salonga’s Eponine actually made me care about the lovelorn character in a way few other actresses in the role have made me. All of the music is incredible . . .

. . .But I got that from the soundtrack. For a video, I wanted some element of performance and Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert is stunningly low on that. The director, Gavin Taylor, does not even use footage at the beginning of the actors singing – in other words, the opening chain gang is on screen, but the singers singing are seldom on screen actually presenting their song, which is weird. Throughout Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert, I noted issues where the direction was just off like that. To Taylor’s credit, there are music-only numbers where there are actions happening on stage, like the slaughter of the rebels at the barricade.

At this point in my reviewing the concert, my wife is getting pissed off with me. She tells me I am being far too hard on the performance because it is a concert, not a play. I just find the piece to be visually underwhelming and I expected more from the performance, concert or play. Given that the greatest amount of physical performance in Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert comes from the Thenardiers in one of the latest numbers, I felt this was not the ideal medium for the presentation – the soundtrack presentation was. But, because I value my marriage, I am mentioning that my rigid standards might not be ideal for this. My wife, who is at least as discriminating as I am, tells me she would rate it a ten out of ten. While I think the soundtrack is up there, the stage performance, which is a true concert, not a play, fell short for me.

On DVD, Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert features two featurettes on the making of the play and DVD. They are a nice added value for the fans, though I think my wife and I geeked out more over the replica of the ticket that was included in the DVD than the bonus features. That said, the presentation of all the Valjeans from around the world singing “When Tomorrow Comes” it is an experience that is undeniably compelling. For fans, Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert will undeniably satisfy. However, for those who have never seen, heard, or read Les Miserables, Les Miserables – 10th Anniversary Concert is presented in a way where it will not be self-explanatory. That, for me, makes it far less compelling than many other presentations of the work.


For other DVD and Blu-Ray reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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