Film musicals are something of an unloved and tricksy genre. For some audiences, the film musical is simply too artificial a construct. True - all genre is constructed and unreal - but the film musical draws unabashed attention to its artifice. For many, the moment cast members begin to sing their stories is the moment their suspension of disbelief dissipates irrevocably.
Recent film musicals have sought to assuage this discomfort by setting their stories in environments in which 'song and dance' are integral to the world in which the narrative takes place. In these films, protagonists are 'show folk' - their outbreaks of jazz hands and habit of soliloquising through song is to be expected (and forgiven). It is an extension of their profession and not some sudden fugue state. Cabaret (1972), Moulin Rouge! (2001), Chicago (2002), and Burlesque (2010) and Fox television's Glee are all examples of musicals wherein the song and dance stuff is 'not life' but rather 'showbusiness-as-usual'. The other category of film musical that causes less cognitive discomfort is Disney's now side-lined 2d tradition of animated features, which owed as much to Broadway as they did to the House of Mouse. It seems that it is marginally less disturbing for cinema audiences if it's an animated bear, mermaid, hunchback or Chinese female-to-male impersonator who is pausing the action for an impromptu power ballad.
A celebrated example of a film musical wherein spontaneous singing and dancing is neither a flashmob, legitimised by occupation or location, nor performed by cartoon characters is Robert Wise's West Side Story (1961) - an adaptation of the stage musical with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet by another name, with Shakespeare's feuding families re-booted as feuding street gangs on the streets of New York. West Side Story won 10 Academy awards, including Best Picture - and it's a triumphant film, wonderful, moving, resonant, timeless...
... and yet there's still that odd, alienating spectacle of characters singing so suddenly and dancing in magical unison; of macho street gangs colliding in a fight that is balletic and hyper-stylised; of star-crossed lovers singing when they should be snogging or sobbing. The film musical in which the essential artifice of the format is brazened out, embraced and staged unapologetically is rare indeed - and risky, and Tom Hooper's Les Misérables is one of these. Based on the blockbusting stage musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, Les Misérables charts the fates and fortunes of a group of characters in the lead up to the failed June Revolution of 1832.
Much has already been made about Hooper's intention to honour the grim conditions of the story's historical milieu by making his cast sing live on set (and on location) without sweetening their vocal performances in post-production. But what a strange idea: seeking authenticity in a genre as blatantly artificial as the musical, wherein the majority of dialogue is sung, not spoken. Hooper makes frequent recourse to that filmic shorthand for verisimilitude - the hand-held camera, lending the aesthetic of documentary and raw immediacy to scenes of complete theatrical fantasy; starving masses singing in unison; singing prisoners dragging a ship into dry-dock; singing prostitutes, singing soldiers...
And yet, somehow, Hooper accomplishes something extraordinary - not consistently, and not I suspect to everyone's taste - but for me at least Les Misérables accomplished moments of genuine cinematic rapture. At times, this most improbable chemistry of camera, actor, performance and score went as far as leaving me breathless with delight. It shouldn't have worked; how could it? How could the basically surreal and awkward spectacle of Hugh Jackman - starved and shaven-headed - singing directly at me down the lens of an unerring, unflattering camera while a disembodied, unseen orchestra rang out with plangent melody be anything more than ridiculous? How was it possible that I felt instead that I was witnessing a performance of especial reality? It felt raw, naked, exposing, true - truest. I've never seen anything quite like it.
I already knew before I watched the film that Anne Hathaway's performance as the tragic Fantine was stealing limelight. I was prepared to be resistant in a cynically begrudging way to the worst excesses of the pre-Oscar-buzz. My resistance was short-lived. It is no small achievement for an actress to so rescue I Dreamed A Dream from the likes of Susan Boyle and a thousand big finishes on a thousand big cruise ships; to transform it from a maudlin and ubiquitous showtune to a despairing elegy to a young life-in-ruins. One of the underlying principles of musicals is that when emotions run too high, characters sing instead of speak, because only by singing can they communicate the 'reality' of their feelings. I'd argue this short scene makes this argument convincingly; Fantine sings because words alone are insufficient. She sings because she must. If Hathaway doesn't get the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for these luminous four minutes and forty seconds of fragile, furious transformation, I'll be very surprised and not a little disappointed.