CAPSULE: SWEENEY RAZORHANDS. One of Broadway's best and most controversial musicals comes to the screen as a vehicle for the Tim Burton and Johnny Depp team. This version glories in the gory. Depp's singing limitations rob the character of Sweeney of his all-important contagious savage fury. Burton shows the audience a lot that could not be shown on stage, not all of which was a good idea to show. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
In March of 1979 Stephen Sondheim's operetta "Sweeney Todd" opened at the Uris Theatre in New York. From the first performance it was clear that this was to be a controversial production. Reputedly at the first performance nearly half of the audience did not return from the intermission. The story of a multiple murderer and the woman who grinds the bodies and sells them in pies was really too gruesome for most of the Broadway musical crowd. Nevertheless the play did find its audience and became a major success.
Tim Burton directs his version from a screenplay by John Logan, who also authored or co-authored screenplays for GLADIATOR, STAR TREK: NEMESIS, and THE LAST SAMURAI. Johnny Depp plays Benjamin Barker, who was transported for life to Botany Bay only to return to London and to his old profession as barber with the newly adopted name Sweeney Todd. He plans to kill the corrupt judge who framed him in order to steal Barker's wife and child. When frustrated with his early attempts to murder the judge he decides that all humanity deserves to die and turns to serial killing. His practical downstairs neighbor Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) decides to use the bodies as a source of meat for her pie shop, turning the neighborhood into unknowing but enthusiastic cannibals. Burton drenches his version of the story in gallons of unrealistic-looking stage blood. All of the film is made visually more dreary by limiting the colors of all but the blood to blue, gray, and black, a stylistic trick that Burton has frequently employed. A few pieces of intentionally obvious animation seem a little out of place. The John Logan screenplay streamlines the play to come in a bit under two hours while doing little actual harm to the content.
Tim Burton seems deceptively like a good choice to direct SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET. After all, Burton has been involved with the macabre since his FRANKENWEENIE. And once Burton is chosen to direct it is almost automatic that he would choose Johnny Depp for Sweeney and Helena Bonham Carter for Mrs. Lovett. Burton likes working with actors whom he already knows and these are veterans of previous Burton films. This is Carter's fifth film directed by Burton and Depp's sixth. The problem is that while these actors are obvious choices, they actually are not really good singing these roles. I do not know if Depp did any singing in his days with the rock group The Kids, but he does not have the force to sing the role of Sweeney. The Broadway stage actors who played Todd were large and physically imposing actors who could really project their voices in ferocious and contagious rage. I am most used to George Hearn in the role from both the 1984 cable production and the 2001 PBS production "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert" and he is a powerful singer. Depp can get the lines out with some anger in his voice, but he simply cannot project being consumed with that savage frenzy the way Hearn could. Helena Bonham Carter is just a little too dainty to play Mrs. Lovett and she does not enunciate well when she sings. In addition the plot calls for Todd to be a man roughly in his fifties, perhaps more. Depp almost looks younger than Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli and is really only eight years older. Todd should be old enough to be Pirelli's father. Tim Burton may have directed musicals before, but he has not really directed humans singing and he has bad shortcomings. Ed Sanders as Toby cannot act and sing at the same time. Where he needs to convey the emotion he just sings with the detachment of a child in a Christmas pageant. That is not his fault, but it is Burton's.
The original play had problems finding its audience at first since the traditional Sondheim musical fans were frequently put off by stories of serial killers and throat slashers. The new version has much more stage blood and much more graphic throat cuttings, further abandoning the Sondheim audience. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have their own fandom who are less likely to be put off by the gory aspects. Now the question is whether this fan base will be interested in seeing and hearing a Stephen Sondheim musical. Complicating the mix is the timing that this intentionally vulgar musical noir is being released for Christmas. Gruesome horror and Christmas seldom make uncomfortable companions, as illustrated by films like BLACK CHRISTMAS.
This film is not the masterpiece that was hoped for. It is just one more macabre entry from the Burton/Depp team to rank roughly at the level of SLEEPY HOLLOW. And that is not really too bad. I rate SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. Now I would be curious to see what George Romero could do with "Sunday in the Park with George."
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0408236/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper