Sweeney Todd:
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Dreamworks Home Entertainment, 2007)

Tim Burton

John Logan
Based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

Johnny Depp,
Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall,
Sacha Baron Cohen

Rated R, 116 minutes

Music and Mayhem
by Michael D. Klemm
A shorter version first appeared in abOUT, May, 2008


This is the type of Hollywood studio film that gets my attention... Stephen Sondheim's majestic and macabre musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, directed by the one of the great visualists of modern cinema, Tim Burton. The two artists, each one a quirky talent in his own right, might strike some as strange bedfellows but they are, in fact, an ideal match. Throw Burton's frequent star, Johnny Depp, into the mix and the payoff is an offbeat and unconventional stew, not for all tastes, but one that is truly worth sampling.

The tale is, I'm sure, well known to most of my readers. The London barber Sweeney Todd (nee Benjamin Barker) was wrongfully arrested and sent to an Australian prison by the vile Judge Turpin. The judge, you see, had taken a fancy to the young coiffeur's wife, Lucy. But there's no place like London and Todd has escaped and is back for revenge. He walks into Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pie shop, where he is treated to one of "the worst pies in London." The eccentric Mrs. Lovett recounts how Judge Turpin wooed, humiliated and then cast Lucy aside. The "poor thing" drank poison and Turpin took their daughter as his ward. Todd, driven mad, re-opens his barber shop (upstairs from Mrs. Lovett's shop), and slits the throats of his customers while she grinds their bodies to make the new and improved meat pies she serves in her restaurant.

The legend of the demon barber is part fact and part urban myth. Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed 1979 musical is partly based on a popular 19th century rendering that was serialized in the pulps of the day and then adapted for the stage. Rather than being just a Brothers Grimm ogre, the new Todd was given a back story, and motivation, for his killing spree and actually starts off as a sympathetic character. Sondheim wisely followed this course, adding ample doses of bawdy humor to make the gruesome tale more palatable.

Movie musicals are a mixed bag. What works on stage doesn't always translate well onto the screen. I always ponder how A Chorus Line, a stage musical about the members of the chorus and their individual stories, got turned into a Michael Douglas movie when Hollywood got its hands on it. And who's bright idea was it to let Sir Richard Attenborough direct it? On the other hand, some musicals - like Milos Forman's version of Hair - benefit from drastic revisions for the screen. When I first heard that Burton and Depp were teaming up again to do Sweeney Todd, I had high hopes but I also knew that the results could be disastrous. But not to worry, Burton and Sondheim are on the same wavelength in this adaptation; one would be hard pressed to find two more crazed imaginations.
Sondheim's score is a marvel. It is thematically rich, employing dramatic counterpoint with staccato, often overlapping, vocals. It is closer to Wagnerian opera than it is to toe-tapping showtunes. The songs propel the plot forward using clever lyrics that combine gallows humor and great pathos. (How can one not love lyrics like "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit / and it's filled with people who are filled with shit / and the vermin of the world inhabit it?" ) Okay, Depp and Helena Bonham Carter could never belt out these tunes on the stage but, without having to project their voices to the balcony, the quirky stars transform the songs into the subtlest of screen acting.
Depp might not be the definitive singing Todd, but his expressive face is a roadmap into Todd's psyche that would be impossible on stage. Depp, as is his wont, creates a unique character and fully inhabits it. The always-dependable Alan Rickman is a standout as Judge Turpin, and Sacha Baron Cohen throws himself with relish into his part as a rival barber. At first, I found Carter's Mrs. Lovett to be a little bit too restrained, considering that she is the comic relief but, after watching performances by Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone on YouTube, I have to concede that Burton's decision to tone it down was wise. A traditional Mrs. Lovett would be too exaggerated for film. [Note 2009: Carter's performance is brilliant but, oh, what I would give to see her singing re-dubbed by Patti Lupone.]

Let me make it clear that Burton's Sweeney Todd is first, and foremost, a movie and not a filmed stage production. Burton has re-imagined Sondheim's opus as cinema, and it should be noted that the composer has fully endorsed the film. The camera gets in up close. The re-creation of 19th century London recalls both Charles Dickens and old Universal horror films. Depp and Carter resemble silent film actors with their pale skin, wild hair and blackened eyes. The white streak in Depp's hair is obviously inspired by James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein.

While celebrating cinema's past, it is also clearly a Tim Burton film in its look and feel. The slanted wall in Todd's attic barbershop will remind Burton fans of Edward Scissorhands - as will the brilliant credit sequence. His settings are typically off-kilter and, as always, his model work is superb. The killings are graphic in a way that would be impossible on stage, laying bare the horror of what is going on behind the often light hearted, albeit cynical, lyrics. The image is cold and almost drained of color, making the copious images of blood all the more vivid.

Sondheim's admirers will be divided. Watching it on stage, (as I did a few months ago when Musicalfare, here in Buffalo, mounted a production with local stage legends John Fredo and Lisa Ludwig), it is easy to distance yourself from what is really happening when the killings are mimed and our "heroes" are singing about what priest tastes like. Much of Burton's film is low-key but, when the horror comes, the director pushes our faces in it. This is the bloodiest Todd in history; I'm quite serious when I state that, at times, the film is truly terrifying.
The editing of the score - aided by Sondheim himself - helps keep the focus on Todd. Gone are many of the secondary plot's love songs and others, like the hilarious "A Little Priest," are boiled down to the essentials. Like the film version of Rent, most of the recitives have been re-written as screen dialogue. The score may be diminished but the narrative is clear and concise for the non-Broadway crowd. I do mourn, however, the loss of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" which is performed only as an instrumental during the opening credits. Obviously this is not the definitive musical performance of Todd but I have to admit that Depp and Rickman's duet, "Pretty Women," is one of the best renditions I have ever heard, sung masterfully while the cinematic suspense that is generated is worthy of Hitchcock.

Is it a horror film or a musical? Actually, it's both. Yes, the blood is excessive, but it works. Sweeney Todd is a musical that borders on the operatic and all operas need bombast and over-the-top spectacle. Sondheim purists might shudder (one such friend told me the soundtrack was best listened to with earplugs) but Burton has fashioned a movie that can satisfy a mainstream audience without betraying or compromising its stage roots. It is simply one of the best screen musicals ever made.

Admirers of both Sondheim and Burton should opt for the two disc DVD as the extras are exceptional. Besides the standard making-of docs, you will find the genesis of the Todd legend, an overview of Sondheim's career, London at the time of the Industrial Revolution, and a history of Grand Guignol theatre. This one is highly recommended.

[Reviewer's note, Nov., 2008: I've gotten to know the full score to Sweeney Todd more intimately since I wrote this review and I am becoming less forgiving of a few of the musical performances in the film. Johnny Depp's singing lacks the power of Len Cariou or Michael Cerveris but there is an unmistakable personality to his voice. The same isn't true for Helena Bonham Carter; while Burton's visuals keep the scene interesting, her rendition of "The Worst Pies in London" is the deadest I've ever heard. And it irritates me more and more that "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" was left out. Still, as a film it is very successful. You don't get to see combinations like Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim very often and, considering most of the big budget drek that comes out of Hollywood, such collaborations should be encouraged.]


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