Which group do I fall into? I'm not telling. But, most certainly, I want to hear the play.
But what about the movie? Well, the movie is good. It's not perfect, but it's good. As a fan of both musicals and grueling horror, I had no choice but to check this one out opening weekend. Still, the same question arises watching the movie that arose with the play. "Who the hell would want to make THIS into a Musical?"
Seriously, folks, let's review here: You've got a depressing, gin-soaked, sooty London in which a dreary traveler returns, opens a barber shop and starts slitting the throats of his customers. If that's not shocking enough, he then drops them through a trap door where his neighbor cooks them and serves their ground flesh in meat pies to unsuspecting Londoners. Folks, this isn't Rent! It's not even Phantom of the Opera! This is revulsion theatre. Which pretty much makes me the perfect critic to review this. Still... "Who the hell would want to make THIS into a Musical?"
In the case of the stage play the answer is Stephen Sondheim (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music) and Christopher Bond (an Actor whose re-telling of the tale led to the musical). In the case of the movie, it's not shocking to note that the answer is director Tim Burton (who wields weird like a pink lightsaber) and producer Richard D. Zanuck, who has backed Burton on a number of projects and has had a number of weird ones without him. The only real surprise is that the screenplay adaptation was by John Logan... but since he's only shown skill at ripping off existing material anyway (see Star Trek: Nemesis... or better yet, don't), we'll just call him a good choice.
To star in this flick, whom else could you get but Johnny Depp? Well, clearly the man needed support, so how about Wormtail, Snape and Bellatrix Lestrange? Yeah, yeah, yeah! If you're not over your weird limit yet, pack your cast with Death Eaters, man (but then again, Burton's Sleepy Hollow was packed with Sith Lords)! Why not just throw in Borat while you're at it? (They did, actually.)
Sweeney Todd begins as two men on a ship approaching London discuss the qualities and liabilities of London (in song, of course). The first is a young Idealistic Sailor named Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower, who may be a woman). The second is a bitter, cynical former Barber and former Australian Prisoner named Sweeney Todd (played with depth, menace and sympathy by Depp). Mr. Todd describes London as a "hole in the world like a great black pit and it's filled with people who are filled with shit!" And he tells us why in a flashback designed to help us to side with Sweeney (though it has no basis in the history or legend of Sweeney Todd). He tells of a young Barber of Fleet Street named Benjamin Barker who, along with his beautiful wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) has a beautiful baby daughter named Johanna (played, as a wee tyke, by Gracie and Ava May along with Gabriella Freeman). Their idyllic life is shattered when the wicked Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) sets his eyes, mind and desire on Lucy. He frames Benjamin for a trumped up crime, sends him to prison on another continent (this dude is more devoted to womanizing than Richard III and King David combined, man!) and then rapes her publicly at a masqued ball.
In case you haven't guessed, he's the bad guy.
In case you haven't guessed, the man once called Benjamin Barker is now known as Sweeney Todd.
He arrives home, hoping to find a wife and daughter, but instead finds a decaying studio apartment with a failing meat pie shop underneath and a scary (yet somehow still sexy) shop owner named Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) awaiting him with her fill-in-the-blanks story at the ready. Lovett tells Todd of the aftermath of Turpin's machinations, which include Lucy's consumption of poison and Johanna's adoption by Turpin as his ward. You see now why Sweeney Todd wasn't marketed as the Feel Good Hit of Christmas, right? To add coincidence to convolution, Anthony Hope falls in love with Johanna (now played by Jayne Wisener) Romeo-style, in what just may be a Lesbian Sub-Plot (Bower is pretty, go with this running joke, for my sake).
Naturally all of this collides to become Sweeney Todd's "all's I c'n stand n' I can't stands nummore!" After recognizing him as Barker, Lovett provides him with his sterling silver razors, to which Depp, as Todd, sings a beautiful love song, calling them his "friends". He then sets out to do two things: become a sought after barber and take violent revenge on Turpin and his Evil Henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).
To the first end, Todd enters into a challenge against the famed barber and showman Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen). To the second, he uses his new-found fame to lure new clients into his barber chair, including Beadle (and hopefully, Beadle's boss).
Burton (along with the many writers on this evolutionary script and the actors) does manage to evoke sympathy for Sweeney from the viewer, even when they know that he's right on the cusp of doing something very frightening. This sympathy stays, in no small part, due to the fact that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both fantastic at their crafts (and yes, both can sing). However, the film is sure to lose many after the killings begin.
At first this is salvaged by the black humor, which runs very deep in Sweeney Todd. Once Todd has killed his first victim, he and Lovett discuss what to do with the body. Seeing as how Lovett's are the "worst pies in London" (because she can't afford to buy meat and she's too slow to catch cats) Lovett convinces Sweeney to enter into a bargain with her. He kills customers, she spices up the pies by cooking and serving said customers to more customers. And if the newly hearty pies happen to "grow hairs", well they just might be paying a visit to Sweeney Todd... paying with their lives, that is. This is all told in a chilling, darkly hilarious number called "A Little Priest". The only thing they need is a shop boy to sweep up around the place and keep the little old woman beggar out of the place. Luckily they manage to obtain the services of Toby (Ed Sanders), the assistant worth killing for.
But as the story progresses and the murders continue, the comedy becomes secondary to the shadowy revenge plot, which, in turn, becomes entwined with Hope's plans to abscond with Johanna and the "yuck factor", supplied both by the soon omnipresent blood as well as the plans that Turpin develops to marry Johanna himself. Yuck! While there are still pangs of remorse for the plight of Benjamin Barker, the audience is no longer given any reason to root for Sweeney Todd. It's lucky that we still have Toby to identify with (a necessary addition, it would seem) because in a script where just about everyone is shown to be a bad guy in some way or another, all our sympathies wash away in a torrent of red blood.
Be warned (as I have warned many) that this is an extremely bloody movie. I realize that statement must come off as a no-brainer to anyone who has heard anything about the stage play (or even the stories behind it), but take special note here, this is an extremely bloody movie! This isn't merely a "slasher" flick (though it is that), where people bleed and die, this is a movie on-par with the blood measure of Kill Bill Vol. 1. With every slashed throat, blood sprays forward like a fountain, that is when it's not spewing out in tiny jets like a lawn sprinkler. There are moments in the film when Depp is absolutely covered in blood, showing more red than the pale whiteness that is Todd's face. Not only that, but the audience is treated to the sight of dying patrons being tossed backward through a trap door (which the chair is a part of) and dropped a full story to crunch on the stone floor of the basement below the shop below Sweeney's loft! There are body parts, streams of blood dripping to the sewers and piles of meaty bones... not to mention lots and lots of roaches.
In short, inform your friends before you bring them, think twice about taking the kiddies and unless her maiden name happens to be "Dahmer", don't even think about bringing Grandma. This is not your standard, feel good/ learn something musical. However, as a musical, it is still very fine. Though not all of Sondheim's songs made the final cut into the film (NPR reported that a full performance clocks in at around 3 hours), the songs that made it are very good, even when chilling and dark.
Even at their darkest, though, the musical numbers can be quite humorous. Lovett's "By the Sea" seems simply made for Tim Burton. All the twisted scariness, combined with the sexy strangeness, implicit comedy and multi-layered themes combine to make a laugh out loud video presentation. There are the obligatory "serious" numbers, where Sondheim alternately channels Wagner and Lloyd Webber, but then there are the sweet numbers too. Though demented, "By the Sea" certainly qualifies as that, as does "My Friends", save for the fact that this love song is dedicated to soon-to-be instruments of death. However, Ed Sanders' rendition of the beautiful song "Not While I'm Around" takes the cake when it comes to the pure, sweet and innocent pieces. Sanders' cuteness doesn't over-saccharine this loving dedication, nor does the fact that his innocent na´vetÚ is right on the cusp of his discovery of a secret more horrifying than anything Bluebeard's Wife might come across.
The big question Zanuck has been asked is whether Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can succeed as a Movie Musical. The answer depends greatly on taste, both yours individually and of the viewing public. It is a beautiful movie in that Tim Burton way. It's packed with great songs and multiple threads of heart-felt love. On the other hand, it feels rushed in many ways, illogical in others and it ultimately feels a lot more like a movie representation of a fuller stage play than it does a Movie Musical in its own right. True, it's filled to the rim with great actors, fine directing and genuine suspense, but it's fuller filled with blood, cannibalism, deceit, back-stabbing, throat-slashing, vermin-cooking, villain-burning, rape and underage drinking. If you've ever read a review of mine, though, you know that none of this really bothers me in a movie (except maybe the underage drinking, though I'm drunk right now). It would be hard to call Sweeney Todd "too much" for me. However, it will most certainly be too much for many out there.
Any way you fill this pie, it's worth seeing if you can take it. It's got a lot of comedy, class, beauty, music and atmosphere to combat the brutality. Whether it has enough for you personally to be satisfied is hard to say. Buy the soundtrack, see if you fall in love, then go see it. If you can't enjoy it as a movie, perhaps it can water your lawn. Four and Twenty Blackbirds, no, wait... Three and One Half Stars out of Five for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street! It's another good musical, another good adaptation, another good Tim Burton movie and another showcase for Johnny Depp's talents. He's truly one of our best actors and not to be missed, even when covered in blood. So until next time, I'll see you in the next reel and remember this:
"Revenge is a Dish Best Served Baked... in a Pastry Shell!"
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Here are some jokes I didn't use: "Nobody else is responsible for the content of this site! Not While I'm Around!"
"... because she can't afford to buy meat and she's too slow to catch Four and Twenty Blackbirds!"
"the Pies have more Body Parts than a Bowl of Wendy's Chili!!!"
"I haven't been able to shave since I watched this thing. I look like a cross between Rumplestillskin, Rasputin and David Crosby!"
"The Demon Barber of Seville! As in Dave Seville, as in AAAAAAAAAAAALVIIIIIIIIIIN!"
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