Chief Justice Michael Stailey has already scheduled his next hair cut.
Our reviews of Sweeney Todd In Concert (published May 12th, 2004), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (published May 3rd, 2004), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (Blu-Ray) (published October 21st, 2008) are also available.
There will be blood.
Whenever an adaptation of any sort hits the big screen, people come out of the woodwork touting their connection to the source material. You've heard it. We all have. Friends, family, co-workers, critics, and other talking heads spouting unsolicited testimony of backstory and trivia, as if it will somehow impress us that they got in on the action before the unwashed masses. I'll be honest. I've had the original cast recording of Sweeney Todd for more than 20 years and never managed to wrap my head around it. This amounts to sacrilege in many musical theatre circles, but I just didn't get it…until now.
Facts of the Case
Benjamin Barker had it all—a prosperous career, a loving marriage, and a healthy, beautiful, newborn daughter. That is, until his family unwittingly crossed paths with an egomaniacal barrister who wanted what Benjamin had and took it. All of it. Flash forward nearly 20 years. Barker returns home to Fleet Street, the scene of the crime, to find the only thing remaining of the life he once knew is Mrs. Lovett's pie shop. The special of the day: Revenge, with unlimited refills. The price: Your soul.
A 19th century British legend (whether fact or myth is subject of much debate), the Demon Barber of Fleet Street had transcended its pulp origins and been made flesh in the mid-1930s by actor Tod Slaughter. The performance cemented this movie monster's presence in pop culture, which would resurface several more times on stage and radio, before Stephen Sondheim would come across it in the early '70s. English playwright Christopher Bond had taken the legend and given it depth and purpose in Sweeney Todd, a stage play billed as Grand Guignol (a French theatre style noted for its horror entertainment), which drew Stephen to a showing on a visit to London. He was so taken by the revenge tale of Benjamin Barker that he returned to New York and began working with playwright Hugh Wheeler and producer Hal Prince on a modern musical adaptation. Starring Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Lovett), Len Cariou (Barker), and a young Victor Garber (Anthony), the show ran for nearly 600 performances and captured eight Tony Awards.
Meanwhile, back in England, a young Tim Burton had been entranced by a performance of the original London production, so much so he went back the next several nights to see it again. Following the success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, a chance encounter with Sondheim had Tim indicating his interest in adapting the musical for the screen. Thus, the wheels were motion. However, it would take another 20 years before the film was made…but it was well worth the wait.
When it was first rumored that Tim, Johnny Depp, and Danny Elfman would be adapting Sondheim's opus for the screen, I was intrigued. If anyone could make sense of this dark, twisted opera, it was these guys. When it turned out it wasn't Elfman but Sondheim himself who would be handling the music, my interest was summarily captivated. It's not often an artist of Stephen's stature and advanced age (78) is willing to reinvent himself and his greatest work for a new audience. But that's exactly what they did, and we're all better for it.
A magnificent animated title sequence clues us in to Burton's forthcoming influence on the tale. Gone are the plodding pace, meandering storylines, and Greek chorus of the large ensemble stage production, replaced by a smaller cast, tightly focused storyline, and jet propelled score that straps us into a cinematic rollercoaster with very little opportunity to relax over the next 116 minutes. Songs are cut, lyrics stripped, and plot points restructured to bring us from third party observers into the very heart of this vengeful tale. But it's not just surface elements that have changed; the characters have as well.
Johnny's Barker is a consumed man. From the minute he steps off the boat, his singular focus is righting a horrible wrong, regardless of the cost. His balancing force is found in Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett, who dutifully keeps that rage in check, while skillfully channeling it in ways to benefit them both. And yet there is no honor among these thieves. Both are holding back specific things, so as not to show their true hand. And yet this never develops into the sexually charged relationship most movie-going audiences come to expect under such circumstances. In each case, their ultimate goal is nothing more than self-fulfillment. For him, it's the complete eradication of everyone involved in destroying his life. For her, it's obtaining a life partner to replace her dearly departed husband. It's not hard for us to see these objectives are far from sympatico, and yet they are completely blinded to it by their own self-interests.
For as much press and accolades as Johnny has received for this role, and deservedly so, I can't say enough about the performance turned in by Helena. I've never been a huge fan of her work, tainted perhaps by her part in Kenneth Branagh's ridiculous version of Frankenstein, but here she's completely won me over. Her subtle, twisted machinations as Mrs. Lovett are at once compassionate, selfish, and altogether manipulative, almost the complete antithesis of Angela Lansbury's bombastic stage persona. It may be her very best work to date.
Another benefit of the story's refocusing is that Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) and his toad, Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), take on a greater significance. Rickman and Spall utilize their many skills in crafting two deliciously self-righteous and perverse characters. We savor the moments they appear onscreen and yet despise them all the same.
The most surprising performance is turned in by Sacha Baron Cohen, as Pirelli, Sweeney's rival barber. While his appearance makes for the film's first bit of comic relief, it's not purely for entertainment's sake. His presence in Barker and Lovett's life is what accelerates their actions into high gear.
While these five characters personify the unrelenting darkness of the story, hope for redemption arrives in the form of Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), Johanna (Jayne Wisener), and Toby (Ed Sanders). The first two represent the eternal presence and power of true love. Despite all odds, they are willing to do whatever it takes to escape the madness that engulfs them and build a new life together. This light is made all the more valuable in that it's completely exposed and precariously flickering such that at any moment it can be completely snuffed out. On the other hand, Toby, who has known nothing but oppression since birth, still manages to provide a humanizing anchor for Mrs. Lovett, as events begin to spiral out of her control.
Of course, each of these performances are enhanced by their respective vocals. The fact that none of these actors were trained singers prior to the film adds another level of realism to Sondheim's already grounded style. Unlike the musicals of the 1940s and 50s, where characters break into song at the drop of a hat, Stephen's characters speak in lyrical tones, the music thus becoming a natural extension of their thoughts and emotions. Their voices aren't polished and pretty, but raw and real. Johnny adds a rock sensibility to Barker's growing insanity. Helena's frenetic energy gives Lovett a loveable scatterbrained quality. Sacha plays up the operatic clown, Alan internalizes Turpin's conflicted moral code, and the kids share their true emotions unfettered by an adult's accumulated stockpile of karmic regrets, remorse, and self-imposed controls. Combined, it's a brilliant cornucopia of emotion that would not be anywhere near as effective in a non-musical environment. What's more, the entire score is orchestrated in such a way that it plays out almost like Tantric sex. Just as the intensity reaches a fever pitch, as in "Epiphany," we're pulled back into a more lighthearted moment like "A Little Priest," where we can savor the moment and recharge.
While the music and performances take center stage, Burton's signature style operates almost quietly from the wings. Emphasizing an esthetic inspired by the classic Universal monster pictures of the 1930s and '40s, Sweeney Todd utilizes a fascinating mix of color correction, chroma key, and full scale sets to recreate 19th century London in all its decadence, decay, and filth. I mean, what Burton film would be complete without atmosphere oozing from every celluloid pore? From Dante Ferretti's Oscar-winning production design, to Colleen Atwood's gorgeous costumes, Dariusz Wolski's ethereal camera movement, and Chris Lebenzon's tighly paced editing, the film raises the bar set by Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish. It's Burton-enhanced realism: beautiful to behold and leaves you wanting more.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, this darkly rich transfer is free from defects and digital tampering but is not a film to be viewed during bright daylight hours, as the natural light of the room will wash out the picture. Atmospherically lit and color corrected to the extreme, these choices may unnerve viewers whose eyes are challenged by non-mainstream visuals. On the audio front, the Dolby 5.1 audio mix is lush, offering up not only Sondheim's robust musical underscore but crystal clear dialogue as well. It's not as ambient heavy as Burton's other films, but there's plenty of atmosphere to be enjoyed from Barker's death chair, Mrs. Lovett's cookhouse, and the London sewers. One hopes we will eventually see a Blu-ray edition, so we can experience Sweeney Todd in true high definition.
While Paramount and Dreamworks are not renowned for their bonus materials, this co-production with Warner Bros. offers up a two-disc special edition that satiates the hunger for both Sondheim and Burton fans alike. While digesting all of the features in one setting may leave viewers frustrated by the amount of content reuse exhibited throughout, taken individually you'll find plenty to chew on. A 25-min documentary feature entitled "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd" is the centerpiece, covering everything from concept through post-production. Several more featurettes focus on the history behind the central character ("Sweeney is Alive") as well as the time period ("Sweeney's London"), the theatre from whence it came ("Grand Guignol"), behind the scenes on the film ("The Making of," "Designs for a Barber," "Bloody Business," Production Photo Gallery), impromptu discussion with cast and crew (Nov 2007 Press Conference, "Moviefone Unscripted" with Tim and Johnny), a condensed version of the story using stills and music clips ("Razor's Refrain"), and the original theatrical trailer. It's a wonderful mix of material and yet somehow feels incomplete without an audio commentary from the principals involved.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While I did thoroughly enjoy the film, repeated viewings have highlighted a few areas I could have done without. For as superficial as this may sound, I found Jamie Campbell Bower too pretty as Anthony and (through no fault of his own) found his performance somewhat distracting. And yet a more masculine actor would not have played as well off of Johnny's Barker. I also found myself enjoying Ed Sanders as Toby less the second time around. His on screen emotion doesn't always match the energy of his sound stage vocals, a true challenge when acting to playback. Finally, Tim's use of Barker's face reflected in the razor and the cracked mirror is repeated once too often. The visuals emphasize emotion found elsewhere in the film and thus becomes unintentionally redundant. However, all things considered, these are nitpicky observations.
Much like Benjamin Barker's beloved razors, Sondheim, Burton, and screenwriter John Logan have taken a grand Broadway production and sharpened it such that it slices and dices its way through the screen with workman like precision and rich artistic expression. Sweeney Todd drips with emotion and subtext, leaving layer upon layer for the eyes, ears, and psyche to explore through repeated viewings. And if you're looking for a great double or triple feature, pair it with Carol Reed and Lionel Bart's Oliver! or Ronald Neame and Leslie Bricusse's Scrooge, for a musical evening spent in jolly ole' London. A trip well worth taking time and again.
Just keep living it!
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Scales of Justice
• "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd"
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