Saturday, 1 August 2009

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I’d like to say that my recent poll on 2000s musicals was an accurate representative of the general movie going public and their opinions, but I’m not crazy. Nevertheless, that does not lessen the importance of the poll’s results in anyway. As I said recently the winner of the poll was Tim Burton’s musical spectacle Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. In retrospect I will say that the results were not that surprising. Since they’re tenure in cinemas Chicago and Dreamgirls have experienced significant amount of backlash from the public, Moulin Rouge! is the only other film that is in good respects with the public now experiencing cult status in most societies. The most obvious reason for Sweeney Todd’s popularity today can be attributed to the diverse population that Tim Burton has brought to the table in his musical film. Despite what I think of Sweeney Todd in relation to the other films, I will say that Tim Burton did prove himself again with the direction of this film.

Many persons have claimed that with Sweeney Todd Burton has proven his diversity, but I’m not so sure. With Depp, Bonham Carter, lots of gore, blood and his usual monochromatic set design Sweeney Todd is not that different from the usual Tim Burton fare. But that does not make it any less good. Don’t get me wrong, despite not being a worshipper of it, I do appreciate the wonder of Sweeney Todd on film. What solidifies Sweeney Todd as a great work on Burton’s part is that it manages to be a realistic musical experience and a cohesive film at the same time. This is something that many musical directors are unable to realise in their films. Let me examine the former first. Since The Sound of Music, Sweeney Todd is arguably the most honest musical. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean it’s the best, but when last has a musical been so honest about being a musical. Some common tricks are only having the main characters sing [Cabaret, Moulin Rouge!], an alter universe or a dream [Chicago] or taking place on stage [Dreamgirls, or Cabaret again]. This doesn’t make them any less worthy as far as musicals go, but it does make it refreshing to see a sung through musical that doesn’t make you cringe [like The Phantom of the Opera].

Of course when you bring up singing the purists will be quick to criticise the whispery singing of the two leads, but that’s what makes Sweeney Todd believable as a film. Have you ever heard Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter speak? They talk just as they sing, and that’s what makes the movie believable. Tim Burton does not stop the movie and go into a number, but the songs actually help to advance the plot.

One of my major gripes with Sweeney Todd lies in the treatment of the character Mrs. Lovett. No, not Helena’s interpretation, but the writing. Somehow, from stage to screen Mrs. Lovett becomes a supporting character. This is a demotion that renders the excellent performance of Helena Bonham Carter less important to Johnny Depp’s theatrics. This is not to say that Depp’s performance is not good, it’s just that if one persons was to get an Oscar nomination for their performance it should have been Helena.

I was a fan of Sweeney Todd when it came out in theatres. If I had my way, back in 2007, my best picture would have looked like this [in descending order]: Atonement, The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd. So Sweeney Todd was among my favourites of that year despite my misgivings. Including the strange casting of the young lovers Anthony and Johanna – two actors who looked hungry and depressed. It almost made me happy that they didn’t have to sing "Kiss Me" which was one of my favourite songs from the original cast recording. I hate being that guy who talks about cut songs when a Broadway musical comes to the screen, but I loathed the massacring of "God, That Good", which was my favourite song from the entire play. But that didn’t lessen my appreciation for songs that worked wonderfully on screen like "My Friends", "Wait", "Pretty Women" and of course Depp’s best song "Epiphany". I was not entirely fond of "Not While I’m Around," but it didn’t spoil the film for me.

I may sound like a naysayer, but I did enjoy Sweeney Todd.

Eeep. Addendum...replace Their Will Be Blood with The Assassination of Jesse James...


J708 said...

love depp but couldn't sit all way to watch this musical. btw i watched dead man walking! thanks for the great recommendation. check out my blog to see what i got to say

Alex in Movieland said...

I have only seen this once. Didn't go nuts for it, except for Epiphany and I remember being much bothered by HB Carter's "singing". :/

but it's dark and most importantly it has a mood, which I think is very interesting. And that Costume Design!!! best thing about it.

I absolutely adore your first 3 choices for 2007; all got at least a 9/10 from me.