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 | , , , , ,

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