A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 406 – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – April 10th, 2011

I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but I feel like I need to mention my antipathy towards musicals whenever we review one. Though I admit that through this whole project I’ve discovered I’m not entirely antipathetic to them, just extremely picky. And I’ll watch a musical and enjoy it, but not in the same way that musical theater fans do, where they’ll go on and on at great length about the merits of the music itself. The music isn’t what I’m picky about.

There are people I know from high school and college to whom musical theater is almost a religion. They can identify not only composer but performers and performance dates from the first bar or two of a song. They have their favorites and woe to any who criticize said favorites without an encyclopedic listing of the technical issues they might have. And that’s where they lose me. I certainly don’t want to listen to badly composed music or badly performed songs, but if something doesn’t strike my fancy I don’t go looking into whether the key was poorly chosen or the bridge less complex than some other piece’s. I don’t care. What I care about is whether I’m enjoying listening to it. I don’t care what musical theater people argue about. It’s the story I’m into. I tend to like musicals that twist things a little. And while I like the songs, to be honest I’d probably enjoy the stories told even without the music.

After watching this tonight I did a little poking into the history of the story, because I knew that the movie was based on a Sondheim stage production but also that the story that was based on was much older. What I hadn’t realized was just how much older. From what I read, it seems this is a very early example of an urban legend. I’ve always found urban legends fascinating and bizarre, so I love that the story has its roots there. And what an urban legend! A butchering barber who uses his straight razor to slice his victims’ throats? Fantastic. Selling their bodies to a meat pie baker down the road? Genius. It takes the idea that gruesome things are happening under your nose and then brings in the concept that you yourself might well have unwittingly participated! Truly the mark of a great horrific legend. Now, in my opinion what elevates it from pure horror and urban legend and its penny dreadful origins is the shift in Todd’s motives. Originally he was just an evil and greedy murderer who operated in an imaginative way. With the introduction of a more sympathetic background the story becomes drama. With the darkly humorous writing and lyrics it becomes a dark comedy. And I’ve got to say, I love that literary evolution. Makes me wish I was back in college so I could have the leisure to do academic work on it. Not that I’d be the first, I’m sure. Or the last.

I didn’t see this movie in the theaters when it came out. I didn’t know the stage production at all and I was never quite in the mood for Tim Burton at the time. I find Tim Burton to be someone whose tastes I have to be in the right mindset for. When I am, he’s fun and fantastic. When I’m not, he’s predictable and tiresome. And I suspect that to some people he’s all of those all combined or only one set or the other. For me, it depends on my mood. Tonight I was in the mood for something dark and sarcastic and a little twisted, so in this went, and I think I was right to wait for the mood, because I enjoyed it. I seem to recall some very mixed opinions from my friends when it came out in theaters, with some loving it and others decrying it as a poor substitute for the stage production. Honestly, I’m not in love with it, but I think it did a fine job with the story and the songs.

I already gave the basis for the story above, but the sympathetic motives this version (and its predecessors) give Todd make him more of a tragic figure, undone by the treatment he and his family suffered at the hands of an evil figure in power. He’s an odd hero for a story, being a murderer who kills indiscriminately after a while, but given his original intention was to take revenge on the judge who wrongly sentenced him in order to gain access to his wife and child? Well, how can you argue with a man who wants to do that? The judge destroyed his family, supposedly drove his wife to suicide and locked his daughter up in his house for years. So he’s got good reasons and I like Depp’s portrayal of him slowly losing touch with those reasons as the movie goes on. I also greatly enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter as Todd’s partner in crime, the baker of the “worst pies in London”, Mrs. Lovett. Of course I enjoyed Alan Rickman as the judge as well, but then, that’s Alan Rickman and the man could read tax instructions and I’d listen. Granted, I’m not a musical expert, but I enjoyed their performances in the songs as well as the acting. Weirdly, though IMDB claims that Depp used Iggy Pop as some of his musical inspiration, I noted a distinctly Bowie-ish feel to a few of his deliveries.

Stylistically, it’s a very obvious Tim Burton film. The color palettes of the scenes tend towards the blue and gray, which I can only assume are intentional in order to make the very red blood pop against them. And oh, there is blood. A lot of blood. That is, after all, half the point. But it really is very much a Burton production, down to Mrs. Lovett’s daydreams of life at the seaside with the incongruously cheerful colors and costumes on the still grey-toned characters. But I think that all suits the story very nicely. It’s an urban legend, after all, so it should feel a little unreal and imaginary. Having the color schemes be so stark works towards that. Really, it’s a fantastic marriage of skills and tastes to put this story and these songs and these actors and this director in the same place. It had just enough fun to keep it a comedy but quite enough darkness to keep it from being silly. An excellent mix and just right for my mood tonight.

April 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

April 10, 2011

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

I’d like to dedicate my review tonight to my good friend Rachel, who introduced me to the bizarro world of Stephen Sondheim. I very distinctly remember sitting in her living room listening to the original cast recording of this musical (with Angela Lansbury!) It’s not my favorite Sondheim (that would be Assassins, which we listened to ceaselessly in the AV at that time) but it is an interesting revelation to anybody who assumes that musicals are light-hearted feel-good trifles. Most of what I knew about musicals at the time was from Disney or Andrew Lloyd Webber. I had seen Les Miserables on stage and Phantom of the Opera (with Robert Guillaume in the title role) and, well, I had HEARD of opera but had never actually seen any. This twisted story of murder and vengeance was nothing I had been exposed to before. I recall being shocked that something so bleak and upsetting could be rendered in song. Over time I came to appreciate that Sondheim was the perfect artist to give life to this kind of strangeness. He, with Hugh Wheeler in this particular case, creates intricate and convoluted works that fit the baroque feel of this material.

Tim Burton also is perfect for this subject matter. Indeed as I watched this tonight I kept wondering just why it took so long for this particular combination of people to come together to make this film. Burton concentrates on the strange gallows humor of the musical, but also plays up the bombastic and operatic qualities of it. He is no stranger to Gothic tales involving death and long-ago injustices. Indeed the somewhat disappointing Corpse Bride, which has to same two leads and some of the same themes, came only two years before this movie. In this particular case, in contrast to the Corpse Bride, pretty much everything works.

The story seems tailor made for Burton’s sensibilities. It involves the return to London of an exiled barber who is coming back after years abroad. He was banished after being framed for a crime he did not commit by a corrupt judge who coveted his beautiful young wife. In his absence his wife was raped and left for dead by the judge’s cronies and his daughter is now the imprisoned ward of the judge. Naturally the barber, using the pseudonym Sweeny Todd, swears bloody vengeance. His landlady and downstairs neighbour Mrs. Lovett produces the worst pies in London, mostly due to the scarcity of inexpensive meat. Thus comes about an unholy alliance whereby Todd’s victims become the meat for Lovett’s pies.

The original musical is pure melodrama, and Burton builds on it wonderfully. His vision of Victorian London as depicted here is a bleak, empty place. We are whipped through it a number of times in complicated digital shots that render the inhabitants almost statues. It is also blue. “Bluer than I remember” was how Amanda described it. It seems always to be night-time and just about to rain besides (which makes it all the more hilarious when we see Mrs. Lovett’s domestic daydream sequence.)

Johnny Depp is, unsurprisingly, fantastic as Todd himself. He has brooding down to an art form, and it’s fun to see him add a touch of bloodthirsty butcher to the mix. Helena Bonham Carter is no Angela Lansbury, but she makes the character of Mrs. Lovett something new. Rather than the clearly hopeless and desperate unrequited love of Lansbury’s Lovett Carter makes her plotting and attempts to capture the affection of Todd seem more plausible. Her Lovett is an eminently practical character who seems in complete control right up until the bloody end.

Bloody it is, too. I had a customer at Blockbuster, a regular and a horror movie fan, return this movie in disgust and request his money back after watching the first few minutes because he had not realized that it involved people singing. If he had stuck it out a little longer he might have found that Tim Burton has chosen to make this movie one of the most gratuitously gory of his career. Admittedly it is far from realistic and seems almost played for humor in a sort of Pythonesque way, but the great gouts of thick, syrupy, gushing blood are undeniably a big part of what makes this movie the beast it is.

This was exactly the movie that I thought it was going to be. When you hear that Tim Burton is going to direct Johnny Depp in a Stephen Sondheim musical, well, this is exactly the movie you’re going to picture in your head. If that’s the kind of thing that you find you enjoy (which it is in my case) then this movie cannot fail to entertain. I only wish that we had the three hours free tomorrow that would be necessary to follow this up with Into the Woods.

April 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment