On the prowl in this locale since 22 June 2008:

Website counter

26 December 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: Music, Gore and More: Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd"

The great surprise in "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is not that Tim Burton can handle a darkly, gothic tale--we've seen that already in "Edward Scissorhands" and "Sleepy Hollow". Nor is it that Stephen Sondheim's musical is sublimely witty--he has garnered enough awards to prove it. The great surprise is that Johnny Depp can sing.

Who knew? Not only does he sing, but his voice harmonizes nicely with Helen Bonham Carter. As fellow muses to Burton, they bring a great gothic classic to film.

"Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street" isn't the first musical by Stephen Sondheim to be filmed but it certainly took a long time to get to the silver screen. "West Side Story" which made its Broadway debut in 1957 was the first of Sondheim's works to be made into a movie.

Sondheim worked as a lyricist to Leonard Bernstein's music (book by Arthur Laurents) on the Romeo and Juliet story that was eventually made into a 1961 movie starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. That movie went on to win best picture, with a supporting actor award for Chakiris and Moreno and a directing award for Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Sondheim himself would go on to be the winner of a 1990 Academy Award for "Sooner or Later (I Always Get My Man) from "Dick Tracy," a 1985 Pulitzer Prize in drama for "Sunday in the Park with George," six Tony awards for best score (1971, 1972, 1973, 1979, 1988 and 1994),

He would, as in the case of "Sweeney Todd" also write his own music. "Sweeney Todd" debuted on Broadway in 1979 with Angela Landsbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as the murderous barber. Winning a Tony for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, Best Actor in a Musical for Cariou, Best Actress in a Musical for Landsbury, Best Direction of a Musical, Best Scene Design and Best Costume Design.

With all those awards, it's a wonder it didn't hit the silver screen sooner. Yet perhaps people weren't ready to tackle the gory story itself. In long ago London, a young barber, Benjamin Barker (Depp) with a beautiful wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), is framed by a Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and his toady, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), and deported to Australia. He has now returned, under an assumed name, looking for his wife and daughter only to be informed by his former friend and neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter), that the judge raped his wife who committed suicide. The judge then adopted the daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), raising her as his ward and future wife. When a former associate (Sacha Baron Cohen) recognizes Todd and threatens him with blackmail, Todd murders the man. But what to do with the body? The resourceful and economical Mrs. Lovett suggests that it would be such a waste to not use fresh meat, when it is so expensive in Victorian England.

Bus'ness needs a lift,
Debts to be erased...
Think of it as thrift,
As a gift,
If you get my drift!


Seems an awful waste...
I mean, with the price of meat
What it is,
When you get it,
If you get it..

Her pies become famous while Todd culls the local population, waiting for his chance to take care of the judge. Meanwhile, an acquaintance Todd made while sailing back to England, Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), catches sight of Johanna and falls fatally in love, but a crazy beggar woman tells him Turpin has imprisoned the girl.

While a stage musical offers immediacy, what a movie offers is a controlled framing of the picture and special effects. You can't easily have squirting blood saturating the stage and clean up in time for the next scene in a theatrical production. You also can't have cockroaches running around in time to the music--at least not in any production I have seen. Bodies falling with a thud, rats running around the basement and meat going through the grinder and coming out in a bloody mess isn't easy to show. And does one really want to go for realism and risk alienating the squeamish?

In the movie, from the opening shots, we have rain falling against a blue-black background of buildings, but some of the drops are suspiciously red, bright red. Blood does not stay bright red for long, nor does it have the kind of viscosity that would make it flow smoothly, slowly and stickily through the cogs of a wheel. Burton's usage of colors suggest animation or comic books or standard musical costuming.

Depp as Todd has a pale white face and darkened eyelids as does Bonham Carter. Unlike Tobias (Ed Sanders), the orphan boy Mrs. Lovett takes in or Rickman's Turpin or Spall's Bamford, the audience sees them behind this modern goth make-up. Their butchery becomes black comedy within an otherwise normal world. They are human cartoons, at times reminding one of both in Burton's previous effort, "The Corpse Bride."

Burton does, of course, give us blood. The victims of the barber bleed bright red blood, but mostly slump over in quiet death. Anyone who's beheaded a chicken knows that death doesn't come so easily, but perhaps the nervous twitching of a body would be too close to reality. Today's audiences have seen gorier, stomach-wrenching stuff on TV in medical soap operas and in recent realistic war movies. Burton elects to keep these killings simple and relatively calm--slit, spurt, dump down the shoot to the basement.

Nothing sexually lurid is visually depicted. That is left to our imagination. Lucy's rape is nothing more than Turpin with a great cape covering her, like a vampire engulfing his victim while shielding the audience from seeing something indelicate.

For all this, if you haven't seen many musicals on stage, you might wonder where the big chorus is or where the big song and dance numbers are. On stage musicals have come a long way since MGM churned out movie musicals in the early 1930s and 1940s. Smaller theaters often have to do with smaller casts due to cost and venue constraints and dark subject matter, while it may not reach a wide audience, are tackled. "Five Guys Name Moe," a 1992 Broadway musical featuring the music and lyrics of Louis Jordan had only six men on stage.

Not all musicals are bright and cheery. In Los Angeles, the 1982 cult classic movie "Eating Raoul" was staged as a musical a (1992 Off-Off Broadway). More famously, the 1996 Off-Broadway musical "Floyd Collins" looked at the struggle to save a man trapped in a cave in 1925. "Sweeney Todd" isn't the only musical about a mass murder; In 1997, "Jekyll & Hyde" opened on Broadway, based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel.

With all the movies becoming musicals and musicals becoming movies in recent years and the popularity of horror flicks, it's been a long wait to see this Sondheim classic on the silver screen. Burton's vision perfectly suits "Sweeney Todd" and his ensemble are actors who sing well enough to make this a musical and visual delight.

No comments: