DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: SWEENEY TODD

Friday 28 December 2007


Sweeney Todd (2007) dir. Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jamie Campbell Bower


Note: I'm writing this review not knowing anything about the original musical. I feel like the victim of false advertising. Though I knew “Sweeney Todd” was based on a Broadway musical the trailer featured virtually no singing whatsoever. In fact, 90% of the film is music and song. And not just the occasional song, it’s like one continuous musical number interrupted by brief moments of dialogue. No disrespect to Stephen Sondheim whose songs and music are complex and intricate but for many people unfamiliar with the material it will likely be an inpenetrable film. Some will see the brilliance in adapting Sondheim's music to the screen, others, like me, will have difficulty seeing past Johnny Depp singing his dialogue.

Depp plays “Benjamin Barker” who returns to home to London, on a mission to exact revenge on the men who kidnapped and killed his wife many years ago. Since then Barker has changed his name to “Sweeney Todd”, and is now a murderous sadistic maniac with a death wish. He befriends a local meat pie maker Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and he sets up a barbershop in her attic where he will perform his bloody revenge killings. They work together to find and lure his victims to the shop where he shaves them, cuts their throat and discards the bodies to be ground up into Lovett’s meat pies.

Perhaps I’m the wrong person to review this film because though I don’t mind actors ‘singing’ their dialogue when it’s on stage, I most certainly find it unwatchable on screen. Each scene would start out with traditional dialogue, and just when the scene would get creepy or interesting the characters would suddenly start singing. Nothing zaps the tension out of scene more than the characters breaking out into showtunes. For example, the first confrontation with his nemesis Judge Turbin (Alan Rickman): Todd invites Turbin to sit in his chair for a shave. This is the moment Todd’s been waiting for years, to have the kidnappers of his wife vulnerable and ready to die. But then Rickman and Depp start bellowing the harmonizing song “Pretty Women”. I immediately fell out of the scene, and into a different movie – a movie I didn’t want to see. So, perhaps it’s my ignorance with the material or my stubbornness to accept music and song in a dark tale of murder, but either way it was a frustrating experience.

The potential for what “Sweeney Todd” could have been is evidenced in the third act when the film conspicuously holds back the songs and finishes the story off with a more traditional dialogue-driven narrative. The final 20 minutes, which saves the film from an even lower rating from me, is a fantastic bloody and tragic climax worthy of its Italian operas roots, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence the singing was minimalized to a few verses.

I think Tim Burton is a good director with a unique sense of style and design, but unfortunately the design team seemed to be on auto-pilot with this one. There were few visual surprises as most of everything we see in the film is recycled from “Edward Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow”. There’s Johnny Depp’s costume and hair which we’ve seen before in “Scissorhands”, Johanna’s died-blonde heroine - a twin of Winona Ryder’s and Christina Ricci’s characters from “Scissorhands” and “Sleepy Hollow” - plus there’s the pasty white powdered goth skin and Dariusz Wolski’s colour-drained cinematography – all of which is typical Burton stuff.

What’s different is the rage and fury and the amount of blood spilled in this film. Correct me if I’m wrong but its Burton’s first R-rated film. Burton makes the most of his rating as he probably sets the record for the most throat-slashings in one film. It’s wonderful to see Burton exercise some violent tendencies in this film, because for a man who has delved into darkness so many times it’s about time we saw some blood. I just wished he didn’t slash people’s throat over Broadway showtunes.

If you like musicals, and know “Sweeney Todd” you will likely be thoroughly satisfied, but if you don’t want to see Johnny Depp or Alan Rickman singing together (both of whom are only adequate) and just want to see Tim Burton spill some blood this is not the flick for you.


Anonymous said...

Ed Wood was rated R. So was Sleepy Hollow.

Anonymous said...

The only way you can truly review the film is if you've watched the original with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury. Or you can go ahead and watch the San Francisco production, except Lansbury is replaced with Broadway diva Patti LuPone. I went ahead and did that, and it led to me to give much more credit for the film.

The singers are untrained. Depp played in a few bands before launching his acting career, but that's all the experience he's had with using his voice. Newcomers Jayne Wisener (Johanna), Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony) and Edward Sanders (Tobias) are also untrained. But for the weaker voices of the film, like Alan Rickman (Judge Turpin) and Timothy Spall (Beadle Bamford), their acting is what outshines.

Yes, the film is 90% singing. But that's why it's called a musical. Sondheim even opted to cut most of the second half's score. A lot of the speaking and singing parts were rewritten for time (The film is an hour and 57 minutes).

Burton has been wanting to do this film for at least 20 years and he made it his own. Tim decided to go with the fake neon red blood to give some humor to the killings; the same kind of humor that Sondheim put in the script. Plus, he's always been know to do great color contrasts, so the neon blood against pale gray scenery is on of his newer trademarks (referring to Sleepy Hollow). As for the dyed-blonde heroine, that's a coincidence. The original called for Johanna to have blonde hair like her mother. And the Goth white pale make-up, it's another one of Tim's trademarks.

Anonymous said...

You shouldn't have to have seen the stage production for the movie to make sense but if you do see "Sweeney Todd" onstage you will understand where the movie went wrong. The black humor is utterly lost with Burton's heavy-handed production and the singing is so off the mark that the sound editor seems to have tried to compensate by burying the vocals under the music.

It is a very complicated musical to perform and if you do not have extensive vocal training and a naturally good voice you aren't going to be able to pull it off. Depp is a talented actor but he is no singer and the movie suffers.

Incidentally, I wish Burton would stop leaning on Depp. I feel that Burton has lost his voice in his last few films and the only thing he seems to be able to offer is a thick Gothic atmosphere with thin characters and plots.