A wronged barber in 19th-century London wielding silver razors on a mission of vengeance sings ''They all deserve to die!'' in the thrilling epiphany aria that's the first-act climax of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. As any besotted devotee of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical-theater masterpiece knows, they all do. Die, I mean. Thwarted just when he has the throat of the villain he most wants in his hands — the evil Judge Turpin, who sent the then-named Benjamin Barker to prison years earlier on false charges — the brooding tonsorial artist expands his killing plans to include all who sit in his barber chair. The legend of this grim reaper and the widowed baker, Mrs. Nellie Lovett, who assisted him by grinding up dead customers into meat pies has been around for over 150 years. But only Sondheim's music and lyrics could explain the barber's reasoning so eloquently: ''The lives of the wicked should be made brief/For the rest of us death will be a relief.''
In other words, to stage a proper Sweeney Todd, necks must be slit, human flesh must be squished into pastries, and blood ought to spurt in fountains and rivers of death. Enter Tim Burton, who has chopped and kneaded an almost dauntingly famous theater piece into something that stands up to the screen, and has tenderly art-directed soup-thick, tomato-red, fake-gore blood with the zest of a Hollywood-funded Jackson Pollock.
Burton's adaptation, starring Johnny Depp in the title role and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, isn't the most enduringly classic Sweeney Todd (that would be the original Broadway production, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury) or the most brilliantly original (nothing beats the deconstructed 2005 stunner, with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone). Songs have been cut and characters reproportioned in importance (the utilitarian screenplay, respectful enough of Hugh Wheeler's original book, is by John Logan, who co-wrote Gladiator). But this opulent, attentive production is splashed with signature style and hell-bent on entertaining Sondheimites, Deppsters, ladies who heart Alan Rickman in the role of the judge, and even Borat/Ali G-loving strays who wander in to see an uncontainably antic Sacha Baron Cohen in the role of a blackmailing faux-Italian con man. It's an impossible assignment, really, carried off with more-than-respectable panache.
Indeed, the movie is so finely minced a mixture of Sondheim's original melodrama and Burton's signature spicing that it's difficult to think of any other filmmaker so naturally suited for the job. (Okay, I'd love to see what American Psycho director Mary Harron would have done, but I'm sure DreamWorks wouldn't.) What Burton lacks (and I suspect he knows he lacks) in ease when it comes to directing fully liberated glee, real fear, and dangerous hilarity, he steadfastly attempts to make up for with compensatory floods of visual verve. Plus, he gets Depp, Bonham Carter, Rickman, and even Baron Cohen to sing.
Oh, Captain Jack Sparrow, gone to the really, really dark side! Burton has an affinity for the mayhem's Grand Guignol setting, of course. But more valuably, he has a unique collaborative relationship with his longtime leading man. And painted in chalky pallor and drop-dead under-eye shadows out of the Pirates of the Caribbean–Edward Scissorhands makeup bag, Depp propels the production through sheer graceful grit of stardom. He emphasizes the mourning man's melancholy (he misses his lost wife and the daughter who's now the hideous judge's ward) with a cold Sleepy Hollow ghostliness, rather than a hot, iniquities-of-the-world fury. Depp is a decent enough singer in a cast for whom vocal prowess isn't job No. 1 or even job No. 5, but singing almost doesn't matter, not while he's around: He's the most interesting person on the screen, and the demon barber he conjures is a fascinating interpretation.
As for Mrs. Lovett, she truly is a woman of ''limited wind,'' as Sondheim describes her and Bonham Carter sings her in a thin, breathy voice — it's difficult to believe that this particular bloody wonder can lift a rolling pin, let alone crank the handle on her hellish meat-grinding machinery. It's nice, though, how Bonham Carter's corpse-bride complexion complements Depp's; how Rickman's sadistic Judge Turpin oozes real erotic heat, not just twisted sexual tastes; and how honorably a big studio has, er, stuck its neck out to do right by one of the great American artistic creations of our time. B+
Aficionados of musical theater should really build a shrine in honor of Baz Luhrmann. This astounding director created one of the most spectacular movie musicals ever put on celluloid: Moulin Rouge. The film was a huge box office hit, a major critical success, a Golden Globe winner, and received an armful of Oscar nominations -- and this was a movie musical! A genre of film that was considered dead thanks to such stink-a-roo flops like A Chorus Line and Grease 2.
After the overwhelming success of Moulin Rouge, film studios immediately noticed that money and prestige could be achieved by making movie musicals again. What came next after Moulin Rouge? Why Rob Marshall's magnificent version of Chicago.
Since then the silver screen has had both hits and misses with the movie musical: Rent, The Producers, Dreamgirls, and Phantom of the Opera. Out of those four, the only one that severely disappointed me was The Producers. Susan Stroman failed by not expanding and going beyond the stage proscenium in her directorial film debut.
This summer we already saw the financial box office smash that was Hairspray, which received glowing reviews as well. Hairspray once again proved that the movie musical is back and here to say, and many of us who worship at the alter of musical theater are very grateful.
Now this Christmas comes another Broadway musical that has been transformed into a film: Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Sweeney Todd takes us to Fleet Street where we meet a man who is finally free from prison after fifteen years of torture. He comes back to London to seek revenge on those who took away his freedom, his wife, & child. To help achieve his grisly goals, he is assisted by Mrs. Lovett, who owns a Meat Shoppe that uses cats for meat. From there we see a twisted, evil, humorous, and horrific tale of love, revenge, and death.
Sondheim's Sweeney Todd opened at the Uris Theatre in 1979, starring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury. The dark musical would slash through 557 performances before closing on the great white way. Sweeney Todd would win eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Thankfully the original stage version was filmed with Lansbury, but replacing Cariou was George Hearn. When I first saw the video of Sweeney Todd, I was completely hypnotized by the grand score and sinister book. I cannot even count how many times I've seen that video.
Sweeney Todd would receive its first Broadway revival in September 1989 at Circle in the Square Theater. This time handling the razor was Bob Gunton, with Beth Fowler (the future "Mrs. Potts" in Beauty & the Beast) as the mistress of meat pies. The revival scaled down immensely the grand epic production and sets of the original by the great Eugene Lee. This version would play for only 188 short performances.
In 2005, a third Broadway revival of Sweeney Todd hit the stage boards at the Eugene O'Neill starring legend Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris. What made this revival so unique is that the entire cast played instruments on stage. There was no orchestra in the pit. As with the 1989 revival, this Sweeney Todd was stripped of all its big production design elements as well. The revival was met with overflowing critical praise and racked up 349 performances.
I have seen quite a few productions of Sweeney Todd, both here in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, as well as Florida. Some were really good, others were just dreadful.
But for me, when I saw the 2005 Broadway revival, it left me speechless for it was truly magnificent. I've never seen such a fresh, unique, and mind-blowing approach to the score, book, and the characters that inhabit Sondheim's dark tale. I still today consider this version a true masterpiece of American musical theater.
It should be noted that the National Tour of Sweeney Todd is coming to Dallas courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals, starring David Hess and Judy Kaye.
Now filmmaker Tim Burton has decided to helm and bring Sweeney Todd to the silver screen. Having sat through over twenty various stage productions of Todd, performed as an actor in two productions, saw a national tour, watched countless times the video version, and then seeing the 2005 Broadway revival with the great LuPone, I think I can safely say I know Todd inside and out. Thus here are my observations and critique of Burton's celluloid version of Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd Theatrical Trailer
First the bad news or negative issues I take with the film.
Burton has cut several numbers from the original score. Missing from Sondheim's glorious operatic score are such bon-bons as: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"; "Kiss Me"; the "Quartet" in Act One; and "Parlor Songs". Also the one major solo sung by Judge Turpin is no where to be found. 98% of the Beatle's music is also missing in the final product.
The ensemble has been completely stricken out of both score and song. This means we never see on screen or hear the majestic, grand opening number "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" sung with operatic glory by an ensemble. Also stripped away is the ensemble in "God that's Good!" -- it is now just Mrs. Lovett & Tobias. The various choral pieces that reprise "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" like the one with the four part harmony are gone.
Burton has also downsized lyrics and stricken verses in many of the musical numbers. Examples of these include: "No Place Like London"; "Worst Pies in London"; "Ah Miss"; "Green Finch & Little Bird"; "Ladies & their Sensitivities"; "City on Fire"; "A Little Priest"; and the "Final Sequence". While these aforementioned numbers are in the film, there are lyrics and verses that have vanished within them.
As for the singing of the cast, you must do this: You have to walk into this movie with a complete clean slate of whatever preconceived notions you have on the vocals. The score demands full, rich, booming voices to bring Sondheim's dark music to majestic life. It is a difficult, demanding score that requires pristine singing. But remember on stage you have to provide voices that can fill a big house live, in film everything is much more internal and intimate to fit within the camera lens.
Thus the majority of the film stars do not possess big, belting voices. It did take me a few musical numbers to get through to adjust and settle into it for my enjoyment. Both Johnny Depp (as "Todd") and Helena Bonham Carter (as "Lovett") possess softer, quieter voices. Carter tends not to fully sustain notes, instead cutting long notes in half. Depp at times does sustain ending notes, but not always. Depp's vocals do possess a hint of contemporary overtones. At times his vocals have a layer of rock and/or pop qualities to his solos. Having said that, both stars do sound terrific vocally, it is just a completely new approach to the material.
Thus, I cannot stress enough that you need not to go into this film thinking you will hear what you have heard in the past because it is not like that for the film. Once you accept that knowledge, then you can truly sit back and be enthralled by this powerful, unique, dark, exquisite, and sublime motion picture.
Visually the film is spectacular! A feast for the eyes in so many ways. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski is jaw-dropping marvelous. For scenes with Todd & Lovett, it is dark, grey, cold, only allowing happy scenes show any hint of light and bright color. This is by far one of the best movie musicals in which musical numbers are filmed. The camera will slowly dance or glide around the stars as they sing.
The camera will move, fly, or go underneath to capture amazing, intimate moments within the musical numbers. It was a great relief that none of that disgusting fast film editing (like a music video) is displayed here. Instead the camera allows the musical numbers to breathe and allow the acting and the brilliance of Sondheim's lyrics and score to do all the work.
Dante Ferretti's production design is marvelous in detail and scope in creating the world of London and Fleet Street. There is so much to soak in, that you have to go back to watch the film again to catch what you missed. Colleen Atwood's costume design is ravishing. From Pirelli's blue crush satin costume trimmed in gold sequins, to Mrs. Lovett's exquisite gowns, to Todd's coal black leather period jacket, they are brilliant period costumes that do transport us to long ago London.
The orchestrations are magnificent. To hear Sondheim's score performed by a massive, robust orchestra in a THX surround movie system is a dream come true. You're ears will be in sheer musical theater heaven as those lush strings, bold horns, and full orchestra bring that score to impeccable life.
As "Sweeney Todd", Johnny Depp delivers a dark, evil, sinister, and vengeful performance that will frighten you to the very core. Never have I seen him deliver such a dynamic and powerful performance within his film career. Usually past actors immediately jump into the madman hysterics that seem to be embedded into Todd's character make up.
Depp instead slowly raises into that hysteria, giving Todd a hint of regret, loss, and contempt but only for a moment. Then he returns to his darkness. His take on the blistering aria "Epiphany" will send chills down your spine. A dark lord with glittering silver blades breaks open his personal Pandora box of death to all of London. Depp's craft of acting within this solo alone will surly earn him is third Academy Award nomination.
Depp's portrayal of "Todd" is also sexy, brooding, and at times erotic. His walk, his posture, his ice cold steel stares into the camera is frightening, eerie, and even sensual.
However, I must admit when he started to talk with his British accent, I could not help but immediately think, "That's Captain Jack Sparrow" from his Pirates of the Caribbean films, but that happens for just a moment.
There are several powerful musical numbers that Depp performs with solid commitment, finesse, and detailed in rich, powerful subtext, such as, "My Friends"; "The Barber and his Wife"; "A little Priest"; and "Pretty Women".
One of my personal favorite solos of Todd is the reprise of "Joanna" that Todd sings as he kills one customer after another. The melodic music and strings composed within the song is just so gorgeous to hear. For the film it is an exquisite musical number. Depp's facial expressions and contempt for his victims is so scary and humorous all at once. I loved every measure and moment of that one solo. Depp's performance here is his finest work done in front of a camera.
As "Mrs. Lovett", Helena Bonham Carter is sexy, erotic, sensual, motherly, and dripping in evil. She turns the usual bigger than life characterization into a more intimate, lonely, and subtle performance. It is riveting from beginning to end. You immediately see how she has always loved Todd, and will do anything for him. Carter's saucer-like warm, liquid brown eyes have this way of looking so hurt and wounded that you can't help but fall for Mrs. Lovett. Carter's comedic approach to the lighter side of the material does achieve solid laughs as well. One of her best numbers within the film is the comical "By the Sea" (which is filmed and costumed beautifully).
Carter's best and most intense scene work comes towards the end of the film in the number "Not While I'm Around" and its aftermath. I've never seen Lovett portrayed as a woman who honestly cares for the boy "Tobias". As the boy sings to her, Carter's eyes and face express a myriad of emotions and inner conflict that Lovett is feeling. Her eyes brimming in tears, she leads the boy to his doom. It will put a lump in your throat and a bitter cold shiver down your back.
The chemistry between Depp and Carter is bathed in eroticism, which I've never seen in any Todd & Lovett. The screen burns and sizzles as Carter tries in vain to seduce this demonic barber -- watch her face, body, and heaving bosom trying to seduce him. The camera catches Carter in the background expressing such love for the man, and yet he sees none of it. I can't write enough glowing remarks about these two stars, they are just that damn good in the film.
There is terrific supporting work provided by Alan Rickman as the disastrous and vile "Judge Turpin"; Timothy Spall delivers a scene-stealing performance as the horrible, snobbish "Beatle Bumford"; and finally Jayne Wisener (who has the best singing voice within the cast) is a porcelain doll as the virginal "Joanna". But alas Wisener's role has been drastically sliced down from the stage version.
The second Sasha Baron Cohen appears on screen as the flamboyant foppish barber, "Signor Adolfo Pirelli", the audience already is laughing. Cohen is wickedly delicious as the snooty barber who accepts a shaving challenge from Todd. A tall mountain of a man, dressed in such tight pants, you wonder if he has a midget stuffed into his trousers! I'm dead serious-audience members where whispering and snickering about the massive bulge in his pants. Which I'm sure is what Cohen was going after here. It was a crime though of Burton to cut some of the lyrics of Pirelli's big number, "The Contest". Even the black, oily, wig that Cohen wears is hysterical. Cohen's performance is a sweet comedic break from all the bleak darkness within the film.
Jamie Campbell Bower portrays "Anthony", a sailor coming home on the same ship as Todd. Usually this role is portrayed by a tall, handsome baritone with a dark, robust singing voice. For the film, Burton has cast a small, skinny framed pretty boy with flowing brown locks. Bower's vocals are passable at best. Alas he just lacks the support to truly explode that final note of "Joanna" to sustain to the very end. His vibrato also seems to escape his grip within his vocal structure. He is decent in the film, but just somehow is not the masculine leading man type we're used to seeing in that role.
One of the best casting choices that Burton did for this film though was casting an actual tiny boy who can sing for the role of "Tobias". Ed Saunders is a little boy who has the entire audience melt in his arms with his big soulful eyes. This role for me has never been played right on stage, the only exception was the brilliance of Manoel Felciano in the 2005 Broadway revival.
The heart and compassion of the film comes forth from Saunder's heart-breaking rendition of the ballad, "Not While I'm Around". You finally see what Sondheim was trying to convey here: mother and child. This is a powerful, haunting, and deeply moving number provided by the young Saunders.
The blood and graphic violence in the film is horrific, raw, vicious, and extremely vivid. This is not a film for children by any means. The gruesome slicing of throats will cause you to squirm in your seats. The blood flows and splatters in wild abandonment all over the screen. But Burton doesn't stop there! When the bodies are sent down to the cellar where the mammoth oven is, the bodies slam with such bone crunching force on the stone floors, you can hear skulls crack, spines break apart, and blood shoots everywhere. The gore and violence that Burton has created here really seals in the horror.
So how can I conclude my film critique of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd? In a word: Magnificent.
It is a powerful, brilliant balance of musical theater and film that so few filmmakers can achieve. It is a no holds bard on the grisly brutality of the violence, but all done with one of the richest and most fulfilling scores ever written for the American stage.
Sweeney Todd is one of the best films of 2007.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Unjustly sent to prison, a man vows revenge, not only for that cruel punishment, but for the devastating consequences of what happened to his wife and daughter. When he returns to reopen his barber shop, he becomes Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who "shaved the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again." Sweeney's amorous accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, creates diabolical meat pies.