Much ado is being made about the fact that the movie musical version of Les Miserables, out December 25, did not use pre-recorded vocals. Instead, the actors sang live to a piano track played through earpieces; the full orchestra was added in post-production.
Though director Tom Hooper and the cast will claim this is “groundbreaking,” that’s not exactly true. According to Slate, “Even if you eliminate non-narrative concert and experimental films—which typically record vocals live—there are movie musicals that counter Hooper’s claim. As film scholar Lea Jacobs explains, musical numbers at Paramount Studios were recorded live on set ‘whenever possible’ as early as 1931, and RKO recorded singers live—accompanied either by a live orchestra present off-screen or a recording of the score—until 1934’s The Gay Divorcee.”
Hollywood’s pre-recording began with a 1929 musical called The Broadway Melody, says John Kenrick, author of Musical Theatre: A History and the creator of Musicals101.com. “When MGM was doing its film of The Broadway Melody, they had what became a hit song, ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll,’” he says. “When they filmed it, they were not happy with the look of it, but they didn’t want to blow a fortune doing it over. MGM’s sound supervisor, Douglas Shearer, said 'Look, you can save a bundle if you just refilm the number and use the existing soundtrack. There's no reason it can't be done.'”
After that, Hollywood realized it could pre-record its musicals in a sound studio, which gave them high quality music and vocals, top quality pictures, and saved tons of money—and they haven’t looked back since. But advances in technology have allowed the cast of Les Mis to sing live on set, take after take. “I think it’s a brilliant idea,” Kenrick says. “Most of the performers in this film have a background in live musical theater, and they can bring that immediate quality to the screen without having to worry about lip syncing. They’re actually performing for a change.”
In honor of Les Mis, here are a few other movie musicals with memorable numbers recorded live.
1. Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer, 1927
The first full-length “talkie” film also prominently featured musical numbers performed by Al Jolson, who performed in blackface. “The Jazz Singer was done live on set, because that’s simply what made the most sense,” Kenrick says. All of the early [movie musicals] were done live on the set with the orchestra there, just off camera in most cases. And in one or two cases, like The Jazz Singer, the orchestra was on camera because it was convenient.”
2. The Cast of The Love Parade, 1929
The numbers in this 1929 musical starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier were “were filmed and recorded live on the set,” Kenrick says. “But that was also the year that Broadway Melody came out. That’s when pre-recording began to take over.”
3. The Cast of Love Me Tonight, 1932
Even though pre-recording was becoming the norm, there were still movie musicals recorded live on set, including Love Me Tonight—also starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier—which recorded a full orchestra and vocals simultaneously while filming.
4. Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, 1964
As phoneticist Henry Higgins in both the stage and movie versions of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison was required to sing patter songs—a type of number which is more spoken (and usually quickly, at that) than sung. For the movie, “[Harrison] said ‘The patter songs are just too intricate,’ so while everyone else’s numbers are pre-recorded, every song he does in My Fair Lady was recorded on set,” Kenrick says. “While that was more expensive, it worked. His performance is dynamic, it’s fresh, there’s vitality to it. He won the Academy Award, and he had also won the Tony for that part.” Harrison also sang live in 1967’s Dr. Dolittle.
5. Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, 1968
All of Barbra Streisand’s numbers in Funny Girl—in which Streisand played the legendary Fanny Brice—are pre-recorded, save for the beginning of the film’s final number (mid-way through the song, the pre-recording takes over). “Streisand made her reputation as a nightclub and stage performer,” Kenrick says. “Funny Girl was her film debut, and people had always wanted her to sing Fanny Brice’s most famous song, ‘My Man.’ At the beginning of the number, she’s breaking down in tears—it would have been almost physically impossible to lip sync that. How do you lip sync to a breakdown? So it made sense for her to do the number live to capture the Streisand performance style.”
6. Julie Andrews, Star!, 1968
It would have been impossible to record what is arguably Julie Andrews’ most famous number, “The Sound of Music,” live on set. Not so for at least part of the closing number of Star!, "The Saga of Jenny." Andrews sings while giving an acrobatic performance, starting at 2:28 in the video above. Impressive.