21 December 2007
I know Terry Teachout reveres the stage version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at least as much as I do, but I can't entirely agree with him that Tim Burton's film version "is -- without exception, and by a considerable margin -- the best film ever to have been made from a Broadway musical." However, this is only because I think Bob Fosse's Cabaret is a more profound and innovative film. Fosse turned an awkward and mediocre musical into something newly rich and strange, and the camera work and editing in Cabaret remain breathtaking even after thirty-five years and oodles of CGI movies. Tim Burton simply had the task of not obscuring the brilliance of his source material. That he did more than that is something to be celebrated.
Burton has created what is certainly his best film in many years, and perhaps his best film yet, although opinions on that will depend on how much you prefer Burton's darker side to his goofier side. This Sweeney Todd is dark indeed -- dark in color palette, dark in tone. By cutting out the "Ballad of Sweeney Todd" segments from the play, Burton has removed the device that allowed the audience to keep a bit of distance from the gore and mayhem, and his ending is more that of a Jacobean tragedy than a Victorian melodrama, for the untainted purity and goodness of Anthony and Johanna is left more unresolved in the movie than in the play. (Did I miss the "Ballad" sections? Sure, because they contain some of my favorite lyrics, and I love the moment when Sweeney rises in the final one. But they're theatrical and would either have made the movie campy or Brechtian, and Burton wisely chose to go in other directions.)
This is very much a Tim Burton movie, and that's just fine, because Burton has tremendous respect for the original play, and his style is not one that is at odds with the source, although it certainly offers a different experience. He is a filmmaker with as distinctive a visual vocabulary as any director I can think of -- there is a continuity of imagery between many of his films, and at times Sweeney reminded me of Beetle Juice and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Batman Returns and Corpse Bride and, at the very least because of the razor blades, Edward Scissorhands. Indeed, Sweeney is the nasty Struwwelpeter underside of the sentimental sweetness at the core of Edward Scissorhands (which, I rush to say, is a movie dear to my heart). Sweeney's line upon getting his razors back -- "At last, my arm is complete again!" -- could be the cry of Edward after having grown up and lost his way for a while. We don't need to refer to Isaiah Berlin to know that some artists have many different styles and visions and others are masters of digging away at particular stylistic obsessions -- Burton, it seems to me, is the latter, with each new film a work unto itself, certainly, but also a work that offers variations on its predecessors' images.
There are a few moments of Sweeney that feel a bit long, a bit theatrical, a bit off (mostly with Anthony's song "Johanna", which generally comes off as silly in the movie because Anthony's passion is a shallow and ridiculous passion of love-at-first-sight, the sort of thing theatrical melodrama can absorb, but which is unintentionally funny on screen). For the most part, though, Burton's version works quite well as a film, making for a fine meld of gory gothic horror and movie musical.
I had heard enough clips of the singing online that I knew what to expect, but I wasn't sure how it would all fit together -- would it seem as thin as it does alone, or would the intimacy of the camera and the lushness of the production design compensate? Overall, I was perfectly comfortable with the singing, and I say that as someone who knows nearly every note of the score by heart. It's simplified in the movie, certainly, and has more the quality of a pop album than an operetta, but the only singer who really disappoints is Helena Bonham Carter, because the quality of her voice is so thin that, for instance, in her first song ("The Worst Pies in London") many of her words are lost beneath the orchestra. But she's a fine actor, and that matters -- I've seen productions of Sweeney Todd with excellent singers who are not particularly good actors, and it is a far more painful experience than productions with adequate singers who are excellent actors. (And her voice is just right, I think, for her later song "By the Sea", which is one of my favorite sequences in the movie.) Burton gets his actors to create vivid, over-the-top characterizations that are often mesmerizing. Johnny Depp is just about the best in the business at such characterizations, and many of the people who can give him competition for that title are in the movie, too: Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall. Each sings, and each is at least competent -- the key is that they do what the best actors do, and throw themselves so deeply into their roles that how they sing becomes a vital part of the character. Timothy Spall's version of "Ladies in Their Sensitivities" is much less pretty than it usually is, but his characterization of Beadle Bamford is also far less pretty than the usual -- he is no self-important fop, but rather a rat-like creature, a lurking pustule of corruption. Johnny Depp's Sweeney lacks the bombast and rugged masculinity of most stage Sweeneys, and so his gentler, less forceful singing makes good sense for his character -- there is a creepiness to him that I've never encountered in Sweeney before, because usually he is presented as rugged, strong, forceful -- whereas Depp finds something else within him: not a vulnerability so much as the ghost of vulnerability, the shell of a man who was once too sensitive, who was nearly destroyed because of it, and who now maintains an obsession because nothing else will keep him from shattering into a thousand tiny bits of self. It lacks the complexity some of the best stage actors have found in the role, but it provides a unity the film needed.
In 1994, my father and I saw the glorious London production of Sweeney Todd at the National Theatre (with Julia McKenzie as a strong and multifaceted Mrs. Lovett and Adrian Lester adding more depth and the role of Anthony than anyone probably ever imagined could be there). My father didn't know the show at all, but likes horror movies, so I thought he'd enjoy it, and he did, saying, afterward, "That had more blood in it than any play I've ever seen!" I don't remember it being particularly bloody, myself, but it's one of those plays that, regardless of how much blood actually gets poured onto the stage, feels like a bath of gore. The movie, though, is full of blood right from the opening credits, but the notable thing about the blood is how stylized it all is -- Burton doesn't try to make the blood look realistic, but rather makes it very, very red, and the effect is both unsettling and beautiful. Perhaps unsettling because it is beautiful. The only truly painful moment of gore is one of the slightest and involves Pirelli's technique with a razor, strop, and Tobias's fingertips.
An interesting change Burton makes from the play involves Tobias, who is generally played as a dim-witted young man. Tobias in the movie is played by Ed Sanders, a young boy. It's a notable performance because it is so understated and sincere, the one character who lacks almost any trace of caricature in the movie. (It's interesting that this year two of the best American movies are musicals -- I'm Not There and Sweeney Todd, and both include startling performances by kids: Sanders here, and Marcus Carl Franklin in I'm Not There.)
I had hoped the film of Sweeney Todd would at least not cause me to cringe while hearing some of my favorite theatre songs sung on screen. I crossed my fingers that it might do more than that, and might even provide occasional moments of joy. It exceeded even those hopes. It was entertaining, entrancing, surprising, delightful, and emotionally affecting in ways different from, but not inferior to, the stage version. It is very much a work of art of its own, separate and different from the other iterations of the story and music -- which was my highest hope, the one I didn't dare dream of, because the chances of disappointment were so high. There was, though, no disappointment at all.