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Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street

Warner Bros. // Unrated // April 20, 2004
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted April 18, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
He served a dark and a hungry God.
To seek revenge may lead to Hell,
But everyone does it, and seldom as well,
As Sweeney,
As Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

So goes the opening song of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim.  This musical, equal parts horror show and dark comedy, won 8 Tony awards.  This success led to a recording of the show being made for broadcast on cable television. The show then went on to win three Emmys and a number of Ace awards.  Warner Brothers has now released this much acclaimed play on DVD.  It is too bad that the quality of the disc doesn't match the quality of the production itself.

Benjamin Barker is back in London after a fifteen-year absence.  He had been a successful barber with a beautiful wife and year old daughter.  But then his life fell apart.  A crooked barrister, Judge Turpin, was infatuated with Barker's young wife, and had the barber imprisoned on some trumped up charges so that he could have the fair woman as his own.  Barker was given a life sentence and sent to Botany Bay.  But he managed to escape, and as the play begins, he has made his way back to England where he takes the name Sweeny Todd.   He rents out his old second floor barbershop from Mrs. Lovett, the widow who runs the bakery downstairs.  Her shop has the distinction of serving the worst meat pies in all of London.

When Sweeney learns that his wife is dead and child is a ward of Judge Turpin's, he loses his grip on sanity.  He vows vengeance on the judge and the man who helped send him away.  Sweeney has other things to contend with first though.  A man that recognizes him from years ago tries to blackmail him, but Sweeney quickly slits his throat.  Much to Sweeney's horror, Mrs. Lovett discovers what he has done.  Instead of being aghast, she points out to Sweeny that meat is very expensive.  ("And them pussycats is quick.")   It would be a shame to let so much good protein go to waste, and what are they to do with the body in any case?  So the two hatch a plot to grind up the victim and put him into Mrs. Lovett's meat pies.  Soon her pies are the toast of the town, renowned for their fine texture and taste.  With business booming, the first victim doesn't last long.  So Sweeney starts killing, not for vengeance, but to fill Mrs. Lovett's larder.  But the barber hasn't forgotten about the Judge and the others who ruined his life, and as much as Mrs. Lovett would like him to forget about revenge and settle down with her, Sweeny can't.  He will have his revenge at any cost.

This show is a wonderful oddity:  A humorous yet macabre movie.  Sondheim's lyrics are both grim and humorous at the same time, like in the song "A Little Priest" where Mrs. Lovett and Todd discuss the advantages of using human flesh in her meat pies.  They could have different flavored pies based on the occupation of the victim:

Have a little priest.
Sir, it's too good, at least.
Then again they don't commit sins of the flesh,
So it's pretty fresh.

But the humor doesn't overpower the drama turning the play into a farce.  Far from it, this production is very dark, with many gruesome murders and people driven to insanity.  This operatic play manages walk a fine line between horror and comedy, mixing the two splendidly so the viewer is never sure whether the next scene with bring laughs or cringes.

The cast in this production was top notch.  Angela Lansbury is spectacular as the lower class widow with few scruples, Mrs. Lovett.   For those of you who only know Mrs. Lansbury from her long running TV show Murder, She Wrote, you owe it to yourselves to see her in this and find out what a truly great actress she is.

George Hearn plays the demonic Sweeney Todd, with great ability.  This is a very difficult role, having to appear sympathetic and evil at the same time.  You alternately feel sorry for the unjustly imprisoned man and winch at the cruelty that he can inflict on others.  Hearn manages to be comic and despicable at the same time.  He did a wonderful job and well deserves the Emmy he won for his performance.

The production itself is just the filming of the Broadway show in a small theater.  You see the stagehands wheeling sets on stage and the members of the audience in some of the long shots.  Filming the show in this manner gives you the feel of being at Broadway play.  The direction was very effective and creates the illusion that you have the best seats in the house.

This is one of my favorite plays.  It has humor and pathos, drama and horror.  The acting is second to none, and the songs are wonderfully.  Broadway musicals don't get much better than this.

The DVD:

While I really like the play in general and this production in particular, I was a little disappointed in the quality of the DVD.  The cover boast of an "All-new Digital Transfer" and "Soundtrack Remastered in Digital Dolby 5.1."  Unfortunately this doesn't mean that the transfer and sound quality are top notch.  I suspect that they did the best they could within the limitation that the original recording placed on them, but the quality is average at best.


The 5.1 DD soundtrack was a little weak and thin.  The audio did not have a very large dynamic range.  The subwoofer was used very sparingly, and there just wasn't much bass throughout the show.  The kettledrums sounded flat, not deep and booming like I was expecting.  At various points in the play a piercing steam whistle is used.  The two times I have seen this play preformed live, the whistle always made me jump with its volume and high pitch.  On this DVD, the whistle is neither as loud as it should be or as jarring.  It sounds as if the upper end of it has been cut off.  Modern home theater systems are able to reproduce such high loud noises, I've heard them on other DVDs, but this disc doesn't.  I can only assume that this lack of range was the way that the show was originally recorded for television broadcast in 1982, when home theaters were rare.

The 5.1 mix was adequate, though uninspired.  The rear channels were used for some low level music, and the applause from the audience.  The voices were mainly rooted in the center channel and there was some, but very little, use made of the front soundstage.  While this is a pedestrian mix, I am glad that they did not go the opposite route and have vocals coming at you from all corners, whether it was appropriate or not.

Overall, I was hoping for more.  The disc doesn't sound bad, there isn't a lot of distortion or muddled dialog, it just isn't as dynamic and forceful as I was expecting.

There are subtitles in English, French and Spanish.


The full frame video, preserving the program's original aspect ration, was similar to the sound quality. It was average, but not as outstanding as I was hoping it would be.

You can tell that this play was originally recorded on videotape.  There is a softness to it that film doesn't have.  The lines are not crisp, and background details tend to blur together.  When there are four or five people in a shot, their facial features are not as distinct and clear as they should be.  While the colors are generally accurate, the blacks are not a true black, more of a very dark gray.   This is too bad, since the show is filled with shadows and dark corners.  While the DVD does look better than a VHS copy would look, it was not the clean transfer I was hoping for.

The Extras:

Unfortunately, this is a bare bones disc.  There is not so much as a television commercial for the broadcast.  A text piece on the history of Sweeney Todd would have been the minimum I thought they would have included. A commentary track from the main actors would have been wonderful.

Final Thoughts:

I was very excited when I found out that this favorite play of mine was being released on DVD.  Having seen this television production several times before I knew that it contained superb acting and catchy songs.  This DVD confirms that my memory wasn't faulty.  The play is just as funny and morbid as I recall.  Unfortunately the quality of the transfer and soundtrack is not on par with the quality of the play.   I strongly suspect that the original taping of the show back in the early 80's didn't capture the full impact of the production, and that the source material is where the ultimate blame lies, but I was still disappointed in the way this disc turned out.  I highly recommend the play itself, and especially with this award winning cast.  If you are not someone who looks in the background for every digital defect that you can find, or you do not have an elaborate home theater set-up, then I'm sure this disc would suit you.  As it is, the quality of the production does exceed the limitations of the transfer and soundtrack, and I think that most people would agree that this was a DVD worth viewing.  Recommended.

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