A truly miserable review
In a comment on my recent review of the film of Les Miserables, Persephone linked to this review by David Denby in the New Yorker. I couldn't let it go past without a response, because it's so bad. And by "bad" I don't mean "unfavourable" but downright wayward and unprofessional.
Denby complains about how "absurdly gloomy" the story was, as though other musicals based on great tragedies were full of laughs. Perhaps he didn't notice the body count at the end of West Side Story (even though in the Bernstein version Juliet survives to mime another day). He complains that it didn't have dancing in it: well if it's dancing you want in your musicals, go and watch any of the hundreds of Bollywood offerings. Seriously: there are some great feasts of music and dance in there. Slender, formulaic storylines for the most part, but the same could be said for the dance-filled musicals he cites as terrific examples of the genre. (A Star Is Born? Seriously?)
He moans that the music is juvenile "tonic-dominant" stuff. While I wouldn't argue with his suggestion that the best of Loewe, Hammerstein and Bernstein are superior, to describe it as "tonic-dominant" suggests a degree of unfamiliarity with the meaning of the terms. There is, in fact, more "harmonic richness" in "I Dreamed A Dream" than in "Thank Heavens For Little Girls", and less than in "Make Our Garden Grow" (to take American musicals based on French literary originals). I'm not sure what that is meant to prove, though. Les Mis certainly has "melodic invention", which Denby seems to confuse with harmony. Again, careless, thoughtless stuff. He enthuses about "Burton Lane" in the same breath as Kern, Porter and Irving Berlin: I had to Google the chap to find who he was. (He composed the now utterly-forgotten Finian's Rainbow, which my wife and I watched a couple of years back and wished we hadn't bothered. "How Are Things In Glocka Morra" is a nice noise, but when that's the only memorable tune you ever wrote, you don't get to be compared with Boublil and Schonberg, let alone Gershwin.)
When it comes to the story, Denby literally loses the plot. He thinks Jean Valjean did nothing wrong. Leaving aside the fact that he was imprisoned for stealing a loaf - not a fair punishment by modern standards, but then nowadays we wouldn't have hanged Fagin for running a pickpocketing gang either (another bit of nastiness sanitised from its attendant musical, though as Oliver! is British Denby ignores it, melodies and dancing notwithstanding). Valjean them breaks his parole (also wrong), and then in the most important episode of the entire film, he robs a priest who had taken him in. He is caught and taken back, whereupon the priest backs his story, insists on his release, and forgives him. If Denby didn't understand that Valjean's "one redeeming act after another" all stemmed from the priest's request that he spend the stolen goods to make something good of his life, then he was wasting his time and that of his readers sitting in the cinema at all. Reviewers are supposed to watch the films they criticise. "The implications of Valjean's complete innocence are dismaying." Well, you said it, dearie: your smug pride in your ignorance certainly dismays me.
But of course, where the plot of the film is insufficiently ridiculous for him he simply makes up one more to his liking. In the version by "Hugo arr. Denby", Inspector Javert "pursues (Valjean) all over France". In the film, as in the book, Javert keeps bumping into Valjean and eventually recognising him. Once he realises who he's dealing with, Javert is certainly monomaniacal about taking him down, but he doesn't pursue him anywhere. "Doesn't he have anything else to do with his life?" screams Denby. Er, yes, luvvie, that's how he gets to be one of the senior cops in Paris having started out as a prison guard.
'Revolution breaks out in “Les Mis.” What revolution? Against whom? In favor of what? It’s just revolution—the noble sacrifice of handsome, ardent boys taking on merciless power. The French military, those canaille, gun down the beautiful boys. It’s all so generic. The vagueness is insulting.' Just so, though it's Denby's vagueness which insults his readers' intelligence. The June Rebellion was a historical event, whose causes and unfolding were as they are portrayed in Hugo's book and in the musical thereof. Hugo would hardly have been "vague" about it, having been involuntarily caught up in one of the exchanges of fire.
But what do you expect from someone who believes that the third-rate Judy Garland in the ninth-rate A Star Is Born proves the greatest moment in the history of screen musicals? Jings, crivens: I'd rather listen to "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat", or "Under The Sea" for upbeat Americana. Far better films, far better music.
By all means download the musicals he lists, though I suspect if you watched them all twice (OK, maybe not An American In Paris) you might slash your wrists. Download Fiddler On The Roof, My Fair Lady, High Society, Hans Christian Andersen and Candide instead if you really want uplifting, quality, stuff that bears repeated viewing. All better than Les Mis, for sure: but why should that stop you enjoying the latter? Denby's railing against the banality of French and British "hacks" suggests that his first concern for a musical is that it be American rather than European. Get thee behind me, Joseph....and Oliver....and Frank N Furter. Tunes, sure, dances, yes, but American? Sorry, nope.
And finally, what of Rigoletto? Denby's criticism of Les Mis, that every emotion in it is elemental, applies in spades to the Verdi. Of course its music knocks spots off all the other musicals mentioned above. It is, however, notably short on dance numbers, and if the plot of Les Mis is "absurdly gloomy", what to make of an opera whose only decent character ends up as a corpse in a sack? And a man who lays into Les Mis for being "all injustice, love, heartbreak, cruelty, self-sacrifice, nobility, baseness" may love Rigoletto, but can surely have no time for La Traviata, which for the rest of us is every bit as worthwhile a piece of Verdi. (With tunes just as good, and with more dance numbers.)
If you want a through-composed opera full of humour and genuine emotion, with wonderful tunes (including the huge hit "O Mio Babbino Caro"), I'd skip Rigoletto and head for Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. Rigoletto is an hour shorter than Les Mis, but Gianni Schicchi is an hour shorter than Rigoletto, leaving you plenty of time to book for Les Miserables so you can judge for yourself what David Denby was too lazy to be bothered watching.