Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Clearly Not For All People: Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd

There is probably little that can be said about Tim Burton’s film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street that hasn’t already been said. The story is excellently adapted, the script slightly refocused to perfection, the song cuts hardly noticeable, the cinematography breath-taking, and the singing thin, particularly Helena Bonham Carter who is physically incapable of doing justice to several of Mrs. Lovett’s songs because of her weak vocal cords.

I did think it interesting that while the score is adjusted for the film medium, several moments in the first act still feel distinctly like opera, particularly “My Friends” and “Johanna.” Though it didn’t bother me, I can see how people who aren’t into musicals as a whole could become impatient in the first act.

A guy seated behind me was one of those people who aren’t into musicals as a whole. After taking his seat, he turned to a friend to say, “I think this is the first musical I’ve ever seen. Wait. I take that back; I saw Grease. I also saw Hairspray, except it was the original one, not the new one.” So, I was impressed that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp did what no one else could have possibly done in attracting some new ears to the magic of the musical.

However, Burton delivers a Sweeney Todd that is, as Sally Brown would say, clearly not for all people. Take someone like me, for example.

[Warning: Spoiler Below]

Whereas the stage version—at least the one preserved on DVD and indicated by the libretto—is more like Jaws or Jurassic Park, the impression of gore with much suspense, Tim Burton’s film version lives up to all the hype and promise of blood that you read about on the Internet. The film still builds up the suspense and terror, but Burton delights in the violence and gore factor. It’s R-rated, so this is no surprise (and it wasn’t for me), but to this viewer (who admittedly has no interest in slasher movies or the newly dubbed “torture porn” genre), it was beyond excessive. Sweeney doesn’t just slit throats; he slices before your eyes as a waterfall of CGI blood flows like water after a rainfall (when not squirting Old Faithful, complete with gurgling sound effects. No longer does Sweeney send his victims down a chute, they drop through a hole in the floor, sliding backwards, their heads crashing onto the pavement in full Technicolor gory . . . I mean glory (How Judge Turpin survives a slashing so brutal it leaves Depp covered in blood and then the pounding thud with enough wherewithal to grab for Mrs. Lovett is not addressed) During Sweeney’s “Johanna” reprise, which is oddly humorous on stage because of Sweeney’s casual tone as he sings a beautiful song while he slits throats, plus the whimsical nature of the victims’ delivery to Mrs. Lovett, the humor is largely lost in the literal nature of Burton’s storytelling.

For more fun, there’s also a prominent displaying of the remnants of Mrs. Lovett’s meat-stripping, though nothing tops the delight of not only witnessing Mrs. Lovett get her just desserts but actually seeing her on fire, screaming in the oven. Gotta love that.

[End Spoiler Alert]

This is not to say that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a bad movie. Like I said, it is excellently adapted and has many merits in its execution. Because of this, it has deservedly won acclaim from many prominent sources, and clearly, there are many people who would line up to watch people getting killed—How many Saw movies have there been?—but one who lines up for a musical will not necessarily enjoy this version of Sondheim’s tale. I, for one, left feeling like I needed some distance from my OBCR and the DVD before I would find myself able to enjoy it again.

the Broadway Mouth
December 26, 2007


DirectorSector said...

Having only seen bits and pieces of the actual stage version of the musical (via YouTube), I have to say that the movie was very well done. I wrote a review on my blog that you might want to check out (if you haven't already).

My biggest complaint wasn't the literal nature of Burton's interpretation (I actually liked that), but rather the blocking and staging of the songs -- he virtually stops all action during songs, rather than incorporating action. I got bored during half the songs (particularly "Not While I'm Around", where I nearly dozed off).

Great site, I've now subscribed to your feeds. Have a good week!

Esther said...

I love the score of "Sweeney Todd" and I love the DVD with Angela Lansbury, and I saw the John Doyle tour in February. But I'll have to wait for the DVD for this one. I'm just too squeamish. I guess it's probably closer to the Grand Guignol style that Sondheim was aiming for, but I can't help wish that Tim Burton had toned down the gore a bit. It sounds basically like a horror movie. Except for "Ed Wood" and "Edward Scissorhands," I'm not a big Tim Burton (or Johnny Depp) fan to begin with. But I know I'm in the minority. Most Sondheim fans who've seen it have loved it. I guess I'll find out in a few months, from the relative safety of my couch.