Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

As one of those people who knows all the words to Sondheim’s 1979 musical, I was certain to hate the movie, even as I secretly hoped for the opposite. I had heard clips of Johnny Depp singing and it had incensed me, and I threw myself into repeated listens to the Len Cariou original cast recording. “Why are they compromising on voice?” I asked anyone who would listen. “It’s a musical!”

Because, as I found out last night, the mechanics of Depp’s vocal cords make no difference when a movie is this beautiful. I hardly noticed the little deficiencies of his and Helena Bonham Carter’s instruments in the thrill of seeing a movie of a musical I loved and loving it, too.

Burton’s London is a comic book inhabited by his personal avatars (Carter and Depp) looking strangely attractive despite their deathly pallor and moral decrepitude. For those who don’t know, Sweeney Todd concerns the return and revenge of a mild-mannered barber turned to bloodthirstiness by the machinations of a lustful judge, who sent him away on a trumped-up charge to gain access to Todd’s wife. He now holds Todd’s daughter, Johanna, in his house, and may have designs on her as well. Todd’s neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Carter), is an unsuccessful meat pie seller who remembers Todd and aligns herself with him in a scheme to kill the judge and revitalize her pie shop. Oh, and they sing.

For those who fear the musical part, I should inform you that the music and lyrics are significantly darker than anything you’ve seen on screen. It’s not Mary Poppins up here. One song cut from the film includes the line “Lift your razor high, Sweeney/Hear it singing, ‘Yes!’/Sink it in the rosy skin/Of righteousness,” and Burton doesn’t shy from demonstrating what happens when you do so. Gallons of red blood suffuse the dim landscape of blacks, whites and blues. The design rides a fine line between realism and Burton’s characteristic style—very successfully, in my opinion. The supporting cast is excellent, young Johanna resembling a blonde Christina Ricci and Alan Rickman deliciously lecherous as Judge Turpin. Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli the rival barber is outrageously perfect as well.

What works about Sweeney Todd despite my prior reservations is that the actors on screen are arresting, no matter how they sound. The music alone could support worse, and the experience of watching Depp mitigates my problems with his singing. I wouldn’t, couldn’t listen to this soundtrack on its own. But in the course of the film I hardly noticed. Likewise the numerous cut songs, some of them among my favorites—I will allow it in the interest of finally seeing a good movie made of a musical I like. And this is a good movie, surprisingly so in my opinion. And I think that if musical geeks like me can get around our vocal dubiousness, non-musical fans might be able to get over their resistance to people singing their plans to one another. It won’t be all things to all people, but it’s an amazing accomplishment and I, for one, am happy to have been proven wrong.

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