Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
On paper the play ‘Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ should be a massive failure. It took a few twisted minds to think that a musical about themes like serial murder, cannibalism, pedophilia, insanity and revenge would be a hit. Taken as it this play sounds more like something rejected by Bialystock and Bloom after deciding on ‘Springtime for Hitler’. The fact is ‘Sweeney Todd’ has been my favorite play for almost thirty years because the fact remains it is brilliant in every aspect of its construction. That is why I also had some major misgivings when I first heard that this beloved play would be translated to film. The era of bringing popular Broadway musicals to the screen was over some forty to fifty years ago. It sounded like pure hubris to even consider a return to this largely forgotten genre. Adding to this were flat attempts in the last few years with musicals like ‘Rent’. Well, the legion of Sweeney fans can rejoice. Not only did the dark humor and catchy music and lyrics translate well here the film breathes new life into the genre and the tale of Sweeney Todd. This film exceeds all expectations and not by a razor’s edge. It will not disappoint any die hard fans of the play and is certain to have a new generation of people to the piece. This incarnation of the story is one of those very rare occasions where all the right people both in front of and behind the camera were brought together.
The original Broadway musical was the brainstorm of Stephen Sondheim as based on the play by English playwright Christopher Bond. The story has been around since the early 1800’s but these men were the first to bring in sinister human motives such as revenge to the work. The play was a huge success in 1979 and it was only a matter of time until it was made into a film. Fortunately for all of us the project caught the eye of Tim Burton. I suppose there are several directors who would have done justice to Sweeney but only Burton has the combination of musical, dark humor and sinister characters to make this film work. Burton is at his best when dealing with the darkest corners of the human mind. His was the only installment of the previous Batman franchise to hold together as a film because Burton concentrated on the inner turmoil of the characters. He takes this precious talent for finding the macabre in humanity and turns it towards one of the most famous serial killers in literature. His use of the camera here is a masterpiece. Burton washes out most of the color of every frame until there is nothing left but bleak figures and drab surroundings. The notable exception are the few flashbacks where the scenes have rich color reflecting happier days long gone. Typically the flashbacks are less colorful than the present not with Mr. Burton. A large part of the charm with the stage production was the movable sets and rapid action of the company. In the film the scenes are opened up with larger sets and location shots but Burton has captured the energy of the play.
The film was written by another man with some experience, John Logan. He has penned a wide variety of movies that range from ‘Gladiator’, ‘The Aviator’ and ‘The Last Samurai’. Okay, he had a few lesser regarded flicks like the remake of the ‘Time Machine’ but that can be considered the exception that proves the rule. Logan’s treatment has received some criticism from Sweeney fans for leaving out some songs and altering others. I admit that I missed the altered or removed material but this is a different format and changes had to be made. The core numbers where there and the emotional mood kept and that is what really matters.
The film opens up with the overture sounding over the logos of both Dreamworks and Warner Brothers. Bllod oozes over the set, down a chair, through gear into a meat grinder and finally in the oven. The first number comes immediately. Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) is excited to return from his long sea voyage back to London. As he sings the praises of London he is joined on deck by Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp). Todd has a completely different view of their homecoming telling Anthony that life has been kind to him but he will learn. Fifteen years before Todd, under his real name of Benjamin Barker was sentenced to life on a prison colony. His crime was being married to a beautiful young woman who was the lustful object of the attention of the powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Once Barker was out of the way the Judge made his move. When Lucy was driven to suicide they daughter she had with Barker became the ward of the Judge. Johanna (Jayne Wisener) has grown into a beautiful young woman and the Judge plans to marry her. Todd returns to his old haunts on Fleet Street and meets up with Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who makes the worst meat pies in London. Todd reveals his true identity to her and she gives him the set of sterling silver razors he left behind so he can become a barber again. A traveling elixir salesman and barber enter into a contest with Todd. Todd easily wins but huckster, Signor Adolfo Pirelli 9Sacha Baron Cohen) recognizes Todd and tries to blackmail him. Todd slits his throat and Mrs. Lovett comes up with an economical idea, use the corpse to make pies. The rest is history as Todd kills them and Mrs. Lovett serves them up.
If you have any concerns about Depp and Carter doing their own singing rest assured that they carry it off extremely well. Depp’s original background was in music so this is not too much of a stretch for him. While their voices are not as powerful and resonating as the actors playing the roles on Broadway they more than get the job done. Burton has moved away from the sweeping company musical numbers to a more intimate series of duets. This does give the film a closer, personal perspective. One of the trickiest numbers to pull off is ‘These are my friends’ where Todd is reunited with his prize razors. It demands a perfect melding of his voice and Lovett’s. Depp and Carter pull it off and make the song fresh.
The film extends the first act of the play compressing the second half into a third act. This does change some of the focus of the story but in this case it works. The film concentrates on the juxtaposition between the main characters. The optimistic Anthony is set against the bitter tone of Todd. Todd is still in love with his wife Lucy while Mrs. Lovett now sees a chance to finally have him for herself. The starkest contrast is between Todd and the Judge. Both are cruel men able to dispense their own form of justice with an almost inhuman detachment. Burton uses his trademark visual style and attention to detail to retell a familiar story for a new millennium. This is not only a treat to listen to but watching it is amazing. He replaced the every present chorus of the play and substituted the visual impact of a broken down section of London inhabited by extremely damaged people. The film was made by both Dreamworks and Warner Brothers which is a little unusual. Warner Brother is releasing a DVD of the play. In this case do not even think of choosing between the two. You will add to your enjoyment by getting both.
Speaking of the DVD it is fantastic. There is a one disc and two disc version available. Since the retail price in most places differs by about $5 go for the tow disc, you will not be sorry. Both have a great anamorphic 1.85:1 video and Dolby 5.1 audio. The color palette is intentionally washed out but holds up. The channel separation for the audio is among the best I have heard in a long time. There are also a ton of extras included.
This is an incredible, dark journey that will entertain you and your family for years to come. The Broadway musical has returned to film with style so get it and enjoy.
Following up with the DVD release Dreamworks has now provided the ultimate way to enjoy this dark comedy; Blu-ray. They have upgraded the audio to Dolby True HD and the video is now 1080p enhanced. As if that was not enough the above extra features are also re-mastered for high definition making them as crisp and clear as the main feature.
Posted 03/13/08 (DVD)
Posted 10/28/08 (Blu-ray)