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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (review)

There Will Be Blood

Just hearing a description of it, you have to think, my god, my god, yes. The twisted, separated-at-birth twins Tim Burton and Johnny Depp taking on Stephen Sondheim’s gory opera about a murderous barber? Who else would you give it to? Who else could possibly do it justice? But then… wait: Burton’s movies have always been magnificent messes, all baroque spirals and curlicues of such lush, lacy darkness that more than earned forgiveness for the fractures in their creepy spiderweb delicacy… but forgiveness, indeed, was required, when Burton too often let his gloriously grim creations slip out of his control. Johnny Depp can pretty much do no wrong — if you mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I won’t hear you, la-la-la, I have my fingers in my ears — and may in fact be walking proof of the existence of God. But Tim Burton has not always been entirely successful, however laudable his audacity has always been.
But this is perfect. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street up on the big screen, all operatic gruesomeness and cobblestones-and-fog moodiness, is perfect. One of the most perfect movies ever, maybe, and sure to be pointed to for forever as the way to do a movie musical right. And the way to do horror, right, too.

I’ve never seen Sondheim’s stage version, and I know it has its fanatical adherents — they may be perturbed to discover that some songs have been truncated, and others excised altogether. (I’ve heard one or two purists say they can’t stand what Burton has done with it, even if Sondheim had his hand in the trimming.) It’s the nature of the, heh, beast: what works onstage doesn’t always work on film, and some of those songs that are needed to convey emotion and state of mind across the distance of a theater perhaps aren’t needed quite as much when we can get right in a character’s face. How do you adapt a big, bold opera to the intimate nature of film? Just like this.

And this really is intimate: Johnny Depp’s (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Corpse Bride) Sweeney Todd — a pseudonym he adopts upon his return to Victorian London after a long exile of unjust imprisonment, a nom de revenge as he plots to murder the judge who convicted him merely because he, the judge, coveted Todd’s wife — is a mass of balled-up anguish as he bites out Sondheim’s bitter lyrics about the cesspit that is London and the relentless weight of grief that haunts him. Johnny Depp sings! And well, too. But not with the smooth polish a professional singer would have brought to this… which is exactly right. The satisfying roughness to his vocals is entirely suited to the bleakness of this character and his story. Maybe you need an operatic tenor with lungs the size of dirigibles when this is on stage, but here, Depp’s raspy whispers are absolutely thrilling.

And the same goes for Helena Bonham Carter’s (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s former and again landlady and now his partner in crime. She’s not refined either, as a singer, but she devours Sondheim’s nastiness and regurgitates a cheerfully wicked character who is as distressing, in some ways, as she is evil. She longs for the oblivious and, it must be said, slightly dim Todd in a way that is resigned to rejection before she even gets her crush on, and in one sequence — which demonstrates how wonderfully Burton (Big Fish, Planet of the Apes) and screenwriter John Logan (The Aviator, The Last Samurai) have cinema-tized Sondheim — she sings of her fantasy of their life together as husband and wife, but even in her daydreams, she can’t imagine Todd as anything other than the dour, dead-on-the-inside soul that we and she see him as.

All this almost too-intimate intimacy — part of the horror of this Sweeney Todd is how it feels, at times, as if we maybe shouldn’t know quite so much about these characters as we do — is perfectly counterbalanced by the deadpan drollery of it all. This is so hilariously sick and twisted, particularly if you’re not familiar with all the details and twists of Sondheim, that you can’t believe Burton dares to go so far as he does. Not just with the gallons of cherry-red blood that drenches the whole endeavor, but with the casualness with which certain doomed characters are dispatched, with the crunchy repetition of broken necks and limbs bending the wrong way, with how sportily the fates of certain characters are toyed with.

There’re been lots of fascinating instances of movies playing with music and with the genre of the musical this year — Enchanted with its spoofing, the long-form musical video of Once — but Burton will go down as the filmmaker who brought the horror comedy and all its attendant geek sensibility to a genre that has been busting out in all directions but that one. (My geek reflexes were so engaged that I couldn’t help but play with all kinds of geek puns as a headline for this review: “A Close Shave”? “Shorn of the Dead”?) When we start seeing science fiction musicals, we’ll have Burton to thank.

MPAA: rated R for graphic bloody violence

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • Eric Dale Eubanks

    Thanks as always for a splendid and considered review. I saw this at a midnight show this morning/last night, and couldn’t sleep till dawn for sheer delight — and adrenaline.

    I’m devoted to the Sondheim original; as a professional actor I’ve done SWEENEY three times thus far [Pirelli and years later when my voice was deeper, Judge Turpin]. Sondheim was integral in the decisions about what to excise and how [I have just suffered your headline dilemma, because of course my impulse was to write:”What to cut and how”!]and a surprising amount of the score is still retained, sometimes as underscoring [minus choral singing]. There’s some grousing about cuts from critics [not many, admittedly] who admit they don’t know the source material, or any theatre material, but will discuss MOULIN ROUGE rhapsodically [I need to stop here before I start looking for my own razors and pie-making accoutrements…] but I offer for the record — as a Fleet Street veteran — that the cuts and the vocal stylings of the fantastic leads are appropriate for the medium.

    Even as a self-proclaimed SWEENEY devotee, I realize the trickiness of adaptation from stage to screen, and I can’t imagine it having been done better than this incarnation.

  • JT

    Granted I have yet to watch There Will Be Blood, but I think Sweeney Todd is the best movie of the year. Knocks No Country for Old Men from my top spot. It is so gorgeous to look at and all the songs are absolutely perfect. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack non-stop all weekend. Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are all spectacular, and I was really impressed with the little kid who plays Toby.

    You mentioned in another post that the advertisements for the movie tried to hide that it was a musical. Well, I love a smart Chicago opening night crowd. It was completely sold out. People were dressed up as Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett. Everyone was laughing and gasping and there were cheers and applause at the end. I normally hate crowds and I’ll watch most movies on a Monday morning matinee, but this was a truly wonderful experience.

  • moongirl

    i have yet to see this movie (i may be going this afternoon O.O) and i must say i’m really really nervous. i guess i just don’t do so well with horror movies, violence freaks me out. of course i am a little young for this i guess (i’m 14-ish), but this is a great reveiw. i just dont know if its right for me . . . but i love johnny depp and tim burton i just don’t like blood . . . oh well . ..

  • Tonya J

    I already emailed MaryAnn thanking her for the Sweeney Todd review I read at Rotten Tomatoes, but I want to say it here too. She made up for every ignorant, unenlightened review about the film I’ve read (not that I can’t enjoy a bad review of a film) along with people like A.O. Scott and Peter Travers at Rolling Stone.
    Well done, MaryAnn!

  • Laura

    Must agree with you on this one, MaryAnn. It was delightfully awful. Awful in the horror, blood and gore sense. Burton and Depp are certainly a twisted pair. At the end I did sort of want to know what happened to Anthony and Johanna, but really, after that last frame with Sweeney and, well, better not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet seen it, I can understand how it would get in the way.
    Thanks for the review.

  • Dan

    Being a film student, I can never watch a movie without pulling it apart slightly. Of course my only complaint would be the viscosity of the blood in the opening sequence. However this is a minimal problem compared to the cinematic masterpeice that “Sweeney Todd” is. Leave it to Tim Burton and Johnny Depp to crank out of the grinder a musical horror, served hot off of the stage right into your lap. It’s a pity to hear that Danny Elfman (the third Burtonite) was not included in the production, but Sondheim’s music was already there so no over score was needed. Like a said a pity.

    All the main characters singing was definatly warneted. Honestly, who doesn’t want to see Alan Rickman singing? This film is my current obsession.

    I hope when you watch it it will be yours as well.

  • MaryAnn

    Of course my only complaint would be the viscosity of the blood in the opening sequence.

    What’s your complaint about it?

  • Pedro

    okay, so professor snape is going around with wormtail, while edward scissorhands is chasing them looking for revenge and competing with rival barber ali g. meanwhile, professor snape’s protege is infatuated with the lead singer of an emo band.

    but i kid. the movie’s great. it served as a reminder both of how much i love johnny depp (and tim burton) and how much i loathe sascha baron cohen. it also served as proof that alan rickman plays all of his characters the same way – they’re all professor snape.

    as for cohen, there was in fact one surprising moment. as soon as i saw his name on the credits i said to my sister “what the hell is he doing in this movie? this is not a ‘funny’ movie!” – not that anything cohen does is ever actually funny. then he appeared and i was like “oh, here he is pulling an over-the-top european accent – it’s borat all over again! go away, you’re polluting the movie!” but then in the scene between the two barbers, something happened – cohen was actually, you know, Acting. oh, he was still doing his ali g voice, but he was emoting and monologuing and letting his character be something other than ridiculous. so much so that it took me a few minutes to realize that that was in fact his ali g accent.

    but then he gets killed, and the movie gets much better.

  • Pedro

    one small gripe, though – how come Toby never wonders where his master went? i know pirelli abused him, and he was probably glad to be shot of him, and i know Todd told him his master had “been called away”. but after days of him not appearing, surely the kid would begin to wonder? unless he was completely dim, of course.

  • I know I’m commenting way after the fact, but I LOVE this review, MaryAnn! Agree 1000% – thanks!!

  • maureen

    this review expresses how I feel about Sweeney Todd perfectly. I think it may well be a musical masterpiece and I’m still angry that Burton was not given an oscar for this film! I mean really? How did this film get so ignored by the oscars. Anyone with a brain would have to concede that it was good :/

  • amanohyo

    I have a brain, and I don’t concede that it was good. You can gather a bunch of mediocre singers and dancers together and pull off a passable Mamma Mia or Chicago, but Sondheim just doesn’t work if the two principal actors can’t sing. I love Depp and Bonham Carter, but that can’t blind me to the fact that they are terrible singers. I can only speak for myself, but hearing them butcher some of my favorite songs was so painful I felt like muting the TV (and unlike a stage actor, they have as many tries as they want to get it right). It’s even more apparent when you compare them to some of the professional singers in minor roles. Burton realized this, I think, and gave the movie a lighter, more goofy tone which weakened the impact of many of the more powerful scenes.

    If you can accept that the movie is a completely different creature than the musical with different priorities, then maybe it’s tolerable. If you’ve never seen a live production with competent singers (or even the 1982 version), then this movie might even be pretty good. But I enjoy Sondheim primarily for the quality of the music. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s somewhat analogous to the relationship between the original Transformers: The Movie, and Bay’s Transformers. The primary element that made the original entertaining (the Transformers themselves) was almost completely ignored, and all the effort was spent on things of lesser importance. The primary element in a Sondheim musical is the music, and the greatest song in the world means very little without someone who can sing it (unless you’re watching your drunken friends during karaoke night).

    All that being said, if ho-hum singing and dancing in Chicago can win awards, then I see no reason why this couldn’t as well. If you liked it, you liked it, and there are certainly many devoted Sondheim fans who are willing to cut the actors some slack for not being professional singers. I am not. “He sings better than we expected,” is not good enough in this case, although from a financial and personal standpoint, I can understand why Burton cast the movie as he did.

  • They’re not terrible singers – they’re just not OPERATIC singers! Personally, I feel that the stage versions often detract from the story because they focus so much on the singing. After, Sondheim DID like the movie version – good enough for him, good enough for me. Depp emotes much more effectively, and Lansbury can be kinda painful to listen to at times, although entertaining, IMO.

  • maureen

    Apologies for not quoting but I’m finding it hard to do :(

    @amanahyo I wasn’t trying to imply that Sondheim fans couldn’t have problems with the singing. I can understand that if you had grown up listening to the original Broadway version, what Burton did with the film could be painful.

    However regardless of wether or not you liked how Carter and Depp sang, I don’t think you can deny that the actual imagining of the film, the art direction, the costumes, the cinematography, the acting and direction were pretty darn good. Just because you didn’t like a film, dosen’t mean it dosent deserve an oscar for the achievements made. I think that Burton should have at least gotten one for art direction.

    I own both the original Broadway and the film soundtracks and I enjoy and regularly listen to both. In the context of the film, I liked how the leads sang and didn’t find it bad at all. In fact, I think Depp was stupendous in how he imagined his Sweeney and I think, that though Bonham Carter’s voice is soft, it complemented Depp’s style well and suited the more internalised nature of the film. Sondheim himself expressed this in an interview stating that he was the one that didn’t want singers who could act, but rather actors who could sing because it was a movie, not a play and this called for a different style.

    and at the end of the day, Sondheim cast everyone but Johnny Depp, and even so, he still approved of him in the part anyway when he listened to a recording, so clearly he saw something good in Helena.

    and I agree with fretfire: Angela Lansbury’s voice, though powerful, is actually more annoying to me than Helena’s. Also, on the Broadway version I have, some of the emotion of the film is missing eg in Epiphany. I think JD did a very good job of that song and I was utterly convinced that he was Sweeney. I think Sondheim saw this too, hence his quote above.

    I find it interesting that you found the movie version goofier and lighter. i think he made it far darker and grittier by taking away the songs about Joanna and Antony and making Mrs Lovett more of a yearning lost soul, rather than a ‘mouthy fish wife’ to quote reviewer David Stratton. If anything, he took the natural ‘chessiness’ of the stage musical away to make the movie more internalised and focussed.

    but at the end of the day, if you didn’t enjoy it, you didn’t enjoy it. However, I must say that it does annoy me a little when everyone blames Tim Burton for the casting when Stephan Sondheim casted everyone but JD :P

  • amanohyo

    maureen, I understand that some Sondheim fans enjoy the sound of Depp and Bonham Carter (and Rickman) singing, perhaps even Sondheim himself. I was extra grumpy this morning because I slept poorly, although that’s no excuse for barging in on the lovefest in such a snooty way. You’re right, the costumes and cinematography were handled very well, and Depp and Rickman did a fine job acting their parts. We’ll have to agree to disagree about the singing.

    And critics can say what they will, Angela Lansbury’s “mouthy fish wife” is adorable.

  • maureen

    ^ I’m sorry you didn’t understand my initial post. All I was saying was that it was ridiculous that the film did not win an oscar for any one of the things mentioned above. I actually thought it was weird that JD got nominated in the best actor catogary considering the other things I thought the film did better in other departments such as art etc, but then again, it’s probably because he’s JD and everyone loves him now.

    I fail to see how I barged in on the love fest in a snooty way- as far as I understood when I was writing I was just saying
    a) the film was good
    b) it deserved an oscar
    what’s wrong with that? in fact I would say that was contributing to the love fest.

    especially since this is the ST movie thread and I was agreeing with Mary Ann’s review.

  • Bluejay

    Maureen, I think amanohyo was saying that SHE (he?) was barging in, not you.

  • amanohyo

    Bluejay’s right; you did nothing wrong maureen. You are the baton twirler in the love parade, and I’m just another angry clown who tried to step on your toes. My angry, condescending tone was inappropriate. I shouldn’t have taken my lack of sleep out on your valid opinion, and I apologize for not apologizing more clearly.

  • markyd

    Wow! Didn’t expect to see a Sweeney Todd thread resurrected. My wife and I loved this movie, and I want to thank you folks for reminding me of it. I think I’ll get her a copy for Christmas!

  • maureen

    gosh sorry amanohyo, I am clearly unable to read english. But anyway who cares, you’re allowed to have your opinion too and I guess I was a bit extreme about how I worded that post and it could be offensive to non-fans of the movie. I should have explained what I meant more, which was that the film was unrecognised for what it achieved in my opinion by the oscars (but then hasn’t Burton always been ignored sigh).

    but anyway sorry if I came across as offensive in that first post.

    and @markyd: I love this film too :) It’s definitely in my top ten film list

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