Johnny Depp Stars in a Macabre Musical
It was back in 1990 that lead actor Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton teamed up to make Edward Scissorhands, and they bring much the same gothic sensibility to Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), a screen adaptation of the stage musical. Depp has given brilliant film performances over the years, and he turns in yet another as Sweeney Todd, the throat-slashing mass murderer. Playing opposite Depp is lead actress Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, who grinds up Todd's victims and bakes them into meat pies. Burton creates an atmospheric, horror-movie London where the blood flows freely. According to the Internet Movie Database, a few seconds of gory footage had to be edited so that the American version of the film could get an R rating.
There have been a number of stage productions of Sweeney Todd following its 1979 Broadway opening, and many people are familiar with the filmed 1982 Los Angeles performance that has been shown frequently on television. However, Burton's version is not at all stagy: he has transformed the material into a fully cinematic experience.
Stephen Sondheim wrote both the lyrics and the music for Sweeney Todd, and they are integrated seamlessly into the story. The majority of the words in the movie are sung, although there is spoken dialogue as well, and the actors move fluidly between speaking and singing. But Sondheim favors unusual musical structures and rhythms, and this work contains no catchy pop tunes.
A Revenge Tragedy With Touches of Dark Humor
The story is set in mid-19th-century London, which Burton renders as a squalid place filled with poverty, crime and corruption. The look of the film bears some similarity to old-fashioned horror movies, and it was shot on sets at Pinewood Studios. It is quite visually arresting and won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction.
The film opens with Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) returning to London after spending 15 years in prison. Having been wrongly convicted by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), Todd seeks revenge. He sets up a barbershop, goes mad and slits the throats of customers who come in for a shave. His barber chair tips back and dumps the corpses into a chute that leads to the cellar. Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) then bakes his victims into meat pies, which she sells in her shop. But Mrs. Lovett is a widow, and at one point she fantasizes about spending time with Todd at the shore, and Bonham Carter and Depp sing "By the Sea."
Sacha Baron Cohen has a minor role in the film as rival barber Adolfo Pirelli, and he is very funny when he sings a comic solo titled "The Contest" with a faux Italian accent as he and Todd compete to see who can give the fastest, smoothest shave.
Another plot thread involves a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) falling for Todd's teenage daughter (Jayne Wisener). Wisener sings an operatic aria "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," and other actors perform a ballad about Todd's daughter titled "Johanna."
Burton's Adaptation of Sondheim's Masterwork
Stephen Sondheim got his start writing lyrics, and he penned the words to the songs in West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein) and Gypsy (music by Jule Styne). He later wrote the music as well as the words for several Broadway shows, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park With George. Although Sondheim's music is considered to be artistically important, it hasn't enjoyed all that much popularity with the general public. The tunes he is probably best known for are "Comedy Tonight" and "Send in the Clowns." Of the shows for which Sondheim wrote both words and music, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is by far the most widely seen because of national tours, revivals, television and Burton's movie adaptation.
But the three-hour stage show has been cut down to a two-hour movie, and several songs are abridged, while others are omitted. The words to "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" are never sung in the film, although that song is heard as an instrumental. Also, recognizing that film is inherently different from stage, Burton chose to emphasize visual elements and nuanced acting, yet he insisted that no actor's singing voice be dubbed by someone else. The movie is built around Johnny Depp, who is reasonably good as a singer and excels at conveying the anger and menace of his character, especially in close-ups. Helena Bonham Carter is a good screen actress who looks right paired with Depp, and she is an adequate singer who doesn't upstage Depp musically.
DVD Has Loads of Supplementary Materials, Some Quite Interesting
The two-disc special edition of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street contains nearly three hours of bonus materials, and some of these greatly enhance the enjoyment of the feature film. This section will briefly describe three of the most interesting of these extras.
The 20-minute "Sweeney Is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber" is about how Sweeney Todd came to be a mythical figure known to millions. He first appeared in print in an 1846 story sold at newsstands for a penny, following which various plays about him were staged. In the 20th century, the mass murderer was portrayed in 4000 performances by an actor named Tod Slaughter, who also played the title role in the non-musical movie Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936).
In the 12-minute "Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd," Sondheim discusses how he saw Christopher Bond's 1973 play Sweeney Todd and decided to create a stage musical based on it. The composer/lyricist says that his concept was to use both story and music to keep the audience in a state of tension.
Another informative featurette is the 19-minute "Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition" about Paris' famous Grand Guignol Theater, where naturalistic horror plays were performed from 1897 to 1962. This tradition had a great effect upon Hollywood from the old movies of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff to more recent ones like Saw and Hostel. Even though Burton's Sweeney Todd is a musical, its mixture of blood and gore and dark humor is very much in the Grand Guignol spirit.DVD Review Continues on the Next Page