On our way out of the theatre after seeing Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, my friend heard a man on his cell phone saying, "Yeah, I knew there was going to be singing, but did it have to be a whole musical? It couldn't be just a half-musical?"
So, consider this my public good deed of the day, and consider yourself warned. Sweeney Todd is a whole musical. It doesn't do anything by half.
Based on the popular stage play by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, Tim Burton's movie is a gory, gloomy, and thoroughly mesmerizing motion picture. The art direction is pristine, creating a dismal and gray 19th-century London that serves as a pocket universe in which the god-like director can manipulate all life to fit his skewed vision. It turns out that the Broadway musical was a perfect fit for the modern king of the creepy and weird. Sweeney Todd is his best film since Ed Wood.
The story of Sweeney Todd is the story of Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), a barber who was falsely imprisoned by the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) so that the Judge could get his hands on Barker's beautiful wife (Laura Michelle Kelly). Fifteen years later, sporting a wild black mane with a Bride of Frankenstein white streak, the barber returns under a new identity in search of his wife and daughter and, more importantly, revenge. He sets up his new barbershop in his family's old apartment, above a bakery that sells rancid meat pies cooked up by the pale and ghouly Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). She knew Benjamin and knows the fate his family suffered. She falls in love with the brooding cutter and allies herself with him to rescue his daughter Johanna (Jayne Wisener) from Turpin's ruthless grip.
That's actually a lot of plot to stuff into one movie. I didn't even mention the young sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), he of the rouged cheeks and puffy lips. He falls in love with Johanna after seeing her in the Judge's window, and he becomes both a help and a hindrance to Sweeney Todd. All of this exposition is crammed into several songs that comprise about the first half hour of Sweeney Todd, and for me, this approach started the movie in a dragging fashion. I couldn't really get into the film until Sacha Baron Cohen (a.k.a. Ali G, a.k.a. Borat) showed up as a rival barber, sporting a ridiculous Italian accent and looking like a refugee from the carnival in Pinocchio. Thinking about Cohen's hilarious performance even now makes me smile. His cameo may be my favorite thing in the movie.
Which is saying a lot, because once Sweeney Todd gets going, there is a lot to like (even if it does still drag occasionally). The murderous Todd, unable to hold back his razor while waiting to get Judge Turpin in his chair, begins slitting the throats of other patrons and dumping them in the cellar for Mrs. Lovett to turn into meat pies, causing her business to thrive. Here, Burton goes wild, indulging in all of his Grand Guignol pretenses. Blood splatters across the scenery, thick and bright red, and bodies drop onto the stone floor with stomach-churning snaps, crackles, and pops. The English accents also make comparisons to old Hammer horror films inevitable, and I doubt Burton would mind. Many of Stephen Sondheim's songs bristle with a black humor, and so the macabre proceedings are tempered with grisly winks. Burton even sends up his own image in a marvelous little scene where the overly pale and thoroughly strange lovers take a break from murder to imagine a day out at the beach.
And, yes, Sweeney Todd, despite its wicked story, is still a whole musical. 90% of the movie is done in song, and given that this is an older Broadway play, it recalls a tradition where the music was written to serve the story, not to stick in your head like a commercial jingle. Sondheim's music builds several motifs throughout the film, creating themes for each character that spell out their obsessions and motivations. All of the actors are excellent, and yes, even Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter can sing. Beyond being Tim Burton's alternating muses (this is Depp's sixth film with the director, Bonham Carter's fifth), they are two very fine actors, and they can now add a whole other category to their resume: horror musicals.
Though not a perfect film, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is probably the strangest and most unique film to be released for the holiday season. Consider it your antidote to overly peppy Christmas carols, or watch it as revenge-fantasy wish fulfillment, imagining all of those pesky relatives that are driving you crazy sitting down to get a shave from Johnny Depp. However you see it, it's a cure for the schmaltz of the season. Forget the nice list, enjoy a little naughty!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.