I really don't like musicals, never have and most likely never will. I used to think it was because I just couldn't stand people bursting into song at the drop of a hat, but then I realized it wasn't the music or the songs I had anything against, it was the plays themselves I couldn't stand. Oklahoma, South Pacific, and the rest of the so called classics of American stage and screen were simply pitiful excuses for theatre; facile plots, no character development, and nothing to hold the audiences attention aside from the song and dance numbers.
Aside from being performed in the same type of facility that people go to see performances of plays in, I see no connection between them and the works of Shakespeare, O'Neil, Pinter, or any of the great dramatists the world has known. It's not that there aren't great pieces of theatre that have music and songs in them, because there are; but plays like Mother Courage by Bertol Brecht have been theatre first and musicals second.
While big budget theatre productions in most major metropolitan centres seem to be still dominated by the blockbuster musical production, film has been reluctant to embrace the genre as often as it once did. Aside from Chicago a few years ago, there haven't been any major attempts to capture a musical on film until 2007 when Tim Burton's adaptation of Steven Sondheim's Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street splattered onto screens around the world.
While I've never been overly fond of Sondheim's work, I've always appreciated it for it's intelligence and originality. His work has always been as much theatre as musical with a real plot and characters who actually develop as the play progresses. Therefore I hoped that the combination of Tim Burton's direction, and Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter tackling the lead roles, would make the film version of Sweeny Toddworth watching. For a variety of reasons I never saw it in the theatres, so I picked up a copy of the DVD (two disc special edition) when it went on sale Tuesday.
I was delighted to see that the support cast included Timothy Spall, (Wormtail in the Harry Potter franchise) and Allen Rickman who I've always liked, and a bit concerned by the appearance of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat)who I usually find too over the top for my tastes. I know there had been some fuss made about none of the leads being "musical theatre" people, but as far as I was concerned it was a plus that actors had been cast rather than singers and dancers. It's a Tim Burton film for goodness sake; were they expecting a lot of happy cappers and jigs or uplifting songs?
For those unfamiliar with the plot of Sweeny Todd, it's a straightforward revenge tragedy. Sweeny Todd had at one time been a happily married barber with a lovely wife and daughter. An evil judge (Alan Rickman) fell in lust with Sweeny's wife, and had him framed and deported. Fifteen years later Sweeny returns to London where he's told by a certain Mrs Lovett, who runs the pie shop below his old barber shop, that his wife took poison and his daughter was adopted by the evil judge.
Something snaps in our dear Mr. Todd and he decides to take his vengeance upon the world and opens his barber shop with the sole purpose of providing a steady supply of filling for Mrs. Lovett's meat pies in the shop below. It's his fondest hope that he'll be able to lure both the evil judge (Rickman) and his henchman (Spall) beneath his razor and enact revenge, but in the meantime everybody is ripe for the slaughter.
While none of the four leads, Depp, Bonham-Carter, Spall, or Alan Rickman are musical theatre types, they are more then equal to the task of the singing that is required of them for their parts, and any deficiencies they might have in range or strength of voice, is more than compensated for by their acting abilities. The story is of course ideally suited to Tim Burton's macabre vision, and by sticking to his usual nearly black and white palate for the scenery, he has great fun with gouts of blood during the "shaving" sequences.
I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of Sacha Baron Cohen as the pseudo-Italian barber Perelli, as being over the top worked perfectly in that instance. He also showed himself able to take it down a notch or two when necessary, as in the scene where he confronts Todd and threatens to reveal him for who he really is. Unfortunately the same couldn't be said for the two actors playing the young lovers; Todd's daughter and her beau, a former shipmate of Todd's from his exile.
Of course their roles were less characters and more plot devices serving as the means to bring Todd and the evil judge together. Still it would have been nice if they had had some acting ability instead of just being pretty voices, as it made them stand out like sore thumbs when compared to the other more accomplished actors in the cast. Depp, Bonham-Carter, Spall, and Alan Rickman are all as magnificent as one has come to expect of them from past performances. Bonham-Carter is especially wonderful, as she seems to have discovered quite a talent for playing evil characters in recent years.
While I appreciated the wide screen format of the special edition, and the 5.1 surround sound, the second disc of "Special Features" really wasn't that special. There was the usual self-congratulating, making of the movie featurette where everybody talks about how wonderful they are without really telling you anything about how the movie was made. The only two extra bits of any interest; a look at the history behind the story Sweeny Todd and an interview with Stephen Sondheim, could have been easily included on the same disc as the movie.
Tim Burton's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is a wonderful movie full of great performances. But if you are going to buy it on DVD, shave some costs and don't bother with the special edition and its extra disc; its a waste of money.
(Originally posted April 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.