Friday, June 6, 2008

Sweeney Todd directed by Tim Burton (starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen)

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2008. Reprinted with permission.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Screenplay by John Logan from the 1979 musical (book by Hugh Wheeler, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and the 1973 play by Christopher Bond.

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
His skin was pale and his eye was odd.
He shaved the faces of gentlemen
Who never thereafter were heard of again,
Did Sweeney,
Did Sweeney Todd,
The demon barber of Fleet Street.

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a wonder. I originally came across it on PBS (the nationally touring version with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn), and knew immediately — with bloody murder, dark humor, and cannibalism — that this was a musical I could get my head around! I immediately bought the only CD copy I could find (highlights of the original cast recording with Lansbury and Len Cariou), and I've been a fan ever since, especially of the centerpiece (and Act 1 closer) "A Little Priest," wherein Todd and Mrs. Lovett fantasize what they're going to serve in her meat-pie shop:

"Is that squire on the fire?"
"Mercy, no, sir. Look closer, you'll notice it's grocer."
"Looks thicker — more like vicar."
"No, it has to be grocer, it's green."

Director Tim Burton's film really does justice to this story of a barber returning to London after 15 years in prison to take revenge on the man who ruined his life. Johnny Depp is a solid singer (he adds a rock and roll touch that is not unwelcome), and Helena Bonham Carter carries the more difficult role of Mrs. Lovett with surprising skill. (In an interview on the DVD, she states she's been a fan for decades and that it was the first thing she and Burton had in common. And, yes, she had to audition for Stephen Sondheim.) Even Sacha Baron Cohen (whose "comedy" I don't find funny at all) is a treat in a broad performance that works and allows him to use two different accents.

Visually, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is perfect, mixing light and dark brilliantly, as one might expect from Burton (a director whose entire filmography consists primarily of shades of gray). And even though several of the songs are missing (and large portions cut from those that are included, such as all pieces requiring a chorus), the trimming works well on the screen. (The only song I really missed was "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," quoted at the beginning of this review.) This change means that the amount of music will not be overwhelming to people who don't generally like musicals — and the amount of blood spilled will surely keep the attention of horror fans!

It works as a horror film, as a tragedy, as an oddball romance (of sorts), and best of all, it still works as a musical. Even Stephen Sondheim (the composer and lyricist) liked it, and he's notoriously disapproved of all other films based on his work. I'm not likely to buy the soundtrack — the singing isn't bad, but it's by no means good enough to listen to by itself — but Sweeney Todd has reinvigorated my love of the material, and that's enough to recommend it to anyone.

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