[Content warning: this article contains brief discussion of a fictional suicide.]
Listen. Before you say anything—I know. I know, okay? We are not going to waste any time here talking about the technical quality of Mr. Crowe’s voice, partially because I wouldn’t know what I was talking about, and partially because it does not make the slightest difference. This article is not here to prove Russell Crowe is a “““good””” “““singer”””, it’s here to prove that he brought new depth to an iconic antagonist, in a way uniquely suited for cinema. Just up front, I’m not gonna cite and argue with anyone saying he sucks at singing. There’s plenty of people saying he sucks at singing. You know it, I know it, and I’m sure Russ knows it. I will not pick apart their arguments; I don’t want to. “He tried his best!”— me, just now. So, moving forward.
If Hooper wanted to prioritise the quality of an authentic musical-theatre-styled performance, he wouldn’t have adapted a forty-nine-year-old show into a blockbuster with an all-star cast. (To this writer’s admitted surprise, it turns out Russell Crowe does actually have something of a musical background. As “Russ Le Roq”, in the 1980s. Perhaps the less said about this the better.) However, since all singing was famously filmed live with in-ear instant orchestration, rather than dubbed in afterwards, the first impression we get of Mr. Crowe as Javert is him bellowing his monotonous first solo (“Now prisoner 24601!…”) against the wind in that wild-ass gigantic boatyard, trying to exude an intimidating aura while dressed as a British Airways hostess. It’s the film’s very first instance of composer Schönberg’s contentious jerky speak-sung dialogue, and it’s really hard to make the same note over and over again sound any good.
So no, I won’t argue that Crowe’s turn in “Look Down” is particularly melodically pleasing, but I do think that then biased most viewers for the remainder of the film; his first solo singing is inarguably his worst. Plus, he’s not the only guilty one at the start—in my view, the musically-experienced Jackman is much more distracting, his accent leapfrogging wildly between Irish and RP before settling somewhere in Scotland as he sniffles his way through “Valjean’s Soliloquy”. Frankly, nobody proves their singing chops until Anne gets the waterworks going in “I Dreamed a Dream”. All this to say: I was with you, gentle reader. Sat there in my cinema chair, stuffing fistfuls of popcorn into my slack maw, brow firmly raised, I too wondered what the hell they were playing at, handing this role of a lifetime to this buffoon. But the redemption of Russ le Roq lay around the corner, and all was soon forgiven. Come with me. Follow me behind the curtain. Look: it’s “Stars”.
“You are blinded by sentiment,” I hear you protest. “His version of “Stars” is totally mediocre! There’s no fire to it! He doesn’t deliver it with stony-faced rigidity and pious fervour in his vibrato, the way all the great Javerts have always done!” You are correct, and that’s why it’s brilliant.
On the West End stage, we simply see Javert against a twinkling background of stars reflected in the Seine—beautifully simple foreshadowing, I’ll not argue with any of it. By nature of the medium, stage actors have to concentrate on projecting their voice all the way to the balcony, and 80% of the audience is too far away to make out any facial details, which is why they usually put him in a cartoonishly huge hat so those of us squinting from the cheap seats can go “oh, it’s the baddie”. But for the film they saw the opportunity they had for variety, and seized it. I could write a whole new article about the cinematography of this scene; Javert’s tightrope-walk along the edge of a Paris rooftop is a delicious hint of contradiction against the words he’s singing about how we should all toe the line; it’s incredibly risky that he, like Lucifer, might senselessly fall, but he believes in his steps to be steady enough that he won’t—and at this stage, of course, he is right. He is the law, but there’s something in him that brings him close to the edge of that line, and that’s his hamartia. The night sky is so still and calm and beautiful, nothing disrupting the order of it—and all of a sudden, we’re seeing the world from his point of view.
It’s pretty much impossible to make this argument without forcing you to listen to some audio clips, but I’ll make them super quick ones, I promise. Here’s Bryn Terfel, a Welsh opera and concert singer. He has an undoubtedly beautiful voice, that much is obvious!
But who’s feeling it more?
Russ Le Roq never took off because the universe knew this man was meant to be an actor. His delivery of every line is…so tender. So meaningful. He takes it so seriously and makes it so human. Quite simply it slaps. And it’s another choice that could only work cinematically; rather than bellowing his straight-laced doctrine out to the audience, it’s easy to believe that soft-spoken Crowe is simply talking to himself. He’s in awe of the natural beauty of the universe, having to assuage his own doubts and worries by reminding himself what he cares about. Yes, of course, Javert’s entire deal is being emotionally repressed, but the show chooses to look away from Valjean and pause the narrative here to help us understand why Javert is the way he is. Having carved out a respectable position by following the rules despite starting his life mired in chaos, of course it goes against his every sensibility to see someone like Valjean literally dunking those rules (or at least, his parole notice) in the garbage. This is what makes Javert just as much of a Fully Realised Creation as Valjean is, but their two worldviews are antithetical and incompatible, and the entire narrative climaxes (subtext intended) around this clash; neither can live while the other survives, etc., JK Rowling wishes she could.
And Russell Crowe gets that, and he did that! Can you imagine that scene if Crowe had just concentrated on hitting the notes in a carrying vibrato, instead of focusing on the character’s emotional journey? It would be excruciating. Cough, cough, HughJackmanIwillneverforgiveyouforwhatyoudidtoBringHimHome, cough. Then there’s “Javert’s Suicide” (er… spoilers?). I don’t have as much to say because the credit here goes more to the direction once again taking advantage of the cinematic format, with the heartbreaking parallel to Javert’s steady walk along the proverbial path of the righteous, and that sickening crunch which asks us to question whether this resolution was moral and satisfying or just desperate and sad. Again, this is less Crowe’s achievement, but he still brings a heartbreaking humanity to it, close and achingly felt.
Look. I am not biased. Not that that would stop me from writing whatever I want, but I’m not. I’m no Crowe stan (do they exist?); I honestly can’t think of a single other film I’ve seen him in apart from A Beautiful Mind. Philip Quast absolutely rules this role live, and when I saw Jeremy Secomb on the West End I was so overcome I sobbed hard enough to shake the entire row of seats (as irritated friends have confirmed). I just love this character, and this song, and this novel, and this show. I came in with no expectations, and I came out impressed, and it’s baffling that this performance has become a wry joke amongst theatrical enthusiasts. He did a good job! Just be nice!
(Also, he brought us this video, and for that, as a society, we should all be thankful.)