It’s been almost eight years since Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables hit theaters. That in turn makes it almost eight years since Russell Crowe’s performance as Les Mis antagonist Inspector Javert made such a negative impression that Crowe was forced to defend his singing chops on social media. Now that the film is available to stream on Netflix, it seems like the perfect time to revisit Crowe’s stab at starring in a musical.
For all the backlash that followed him at the time, Russell Crowe’s turn as Javert is a commendable, compelling effort. If anything, it’s Hugh Jackman’s performance as Jean Valjean that isn’t up to snuff.
Crowe is admittedly a strange choice to star in a musical. His voice is a little gruff, rather than clarion in the way that’s generally expected on Broadway. Listening to previous well-known Javerts — Roger Allam, Terrence Mann, Philip Quast, Norm Lewis — makes that distinction clear. Their voices are clearly distinguishable from each other, but all of them possess a broad, open quality, unburdened by the gravelliness of Crowe’s voice.
But a strange choice doesn’t mean a bad choice. The rugged quality of Crowe’s voice makes Javert a little more vulnerable from the start of the film — he’s intimidating more because he’s a big guy with rough edges, and less because he possesses the kind of laser precision that Mann brings to the part. It makes Javert’s eventual crisis and breakdown particularly compelling. Crowe acquits himself best in “Javert’s Suicide,” as the tremulous quality of his voice when he’s pushed to the edges of his range works in harmony with his character’s uncertainty — and to his credit, he nails his high notes.
That’s the quality I find most crucial to judging Crowe’s performance as commendable: He hits all his notes at the right times. The same can’t quite be said of Jackman.
Jackman was born to be a star, and more accurately, born to be a musical-theater star. (He’s currently set to star in The Music Man when Broadway opens again, which is a perfect fit if I’ve ever seen one, and sure to net him another Tony Award.) He has a gorgeous voice that he seems to be able to command to do anything, which is why, unlike Crowe, he wasn’t accused of taking a part out of his vocal range. So what’s the problem with his Valjean performance?
It trickles down from the movie’s bigger issue: its orchestration. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s original orchestration is, put generously, synthesizer-heavy, a symptom of the fact that it came out in the 1980s. For the movie, however, the orchestration (still courtesy of Schönberg) is entirely, well, orchestral. The synth has been removed, presumably in an attempt to make the musical feel less kitschy and more serious. But Les Mis may be the rare synth-y musical that has escaped that kitschy feeling — it’s such an iconic production and sound that it transcends any sense of cool or uncool. Anyway, it’s musical theater — since when has “cool” really mattered?
Hooper’s attempt to make Les Mis more momentous extends to the way Jackman sings, to disastrous effect. Jackman does a version of speak-singing, delivering melodies like he’s delivering lines. Take his rendition of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” — the balance between acting and singing is skewed until it sounds more strained than any of Crowe’s numbers, until Jackman gets to show off on the high notes. He ignores note values, instead only roughly following Schönberg’s rhythms as he tries to get the lyrics closer to how they might be spoken. The result is herky-jerky and ultimately more distracting than Crowe’s husky singing, especially because Jackman is the only singer really doing it. His golden voice doesn’t counteract that erratic delivery.
It’s a case of slow and steady winning the race, though neither party wins in the film rendition of one of Les Mis’ most popular duets, “The Confrontation.” Jackman and Crowe’s singing styles just don’t mesh, and neither do their very different voices. However, in the long run, Crowe’s steady delivery makes his performance more convincing, even though his singing voice isn’t as strong as Jackman’s. He isn’t a typical Broadway Javert, but that doesn’t make him a bad Javert — the difference between his performance and that of the familiar Broadway Javerts actually works for the film, at least in my opinion, whereas Jackman’s performance falls flat. But only metaphorically, of course, as Jackman has never met a note he couldn’t hit.
Like Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! (derided for his singing, even though he gives an incredibly earnest performance), Crowe deserves more credit for his singing. He’s putting in the work, and the fact that he isn’t an obvious choice for a musical-theater role doesn’t mean that his performance sucks. Hooper said he cast Crowe for his talent as an actor (“It had to be a very formidable actor […] in Wolverine versus Gladiator, I’d probably put my bet on Gladiator!”), and that quality fully comes across in Crowe’s work. Javert the character may be misguided, but Javert, the Russell Crowe performance, deserves justice.
Les Misérables is streaming on Netflix now.