“Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd.
He served a dark and a vengeful god.
What happened then, well, that’s the play
And he wouldn’t want us to give it away.
Not Sweeney Todd.
The demon barber of Fleet Street”
These, my friends, are lyrics that you will not hear in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony award winning musical of the same name. And that’s fine. They become unnecessary in this media.
If you are an avid watcher of movie musicals, like me, you will come to observe something. Musical theater fans and movie fans are, for the most part, two different groups of people (of course, there is some crossover. Exhibit A: me). It is nearly impossible to please the musical theater fans while simultaneously pleasing the movie going fans and vice versa. Somebody is always mad somewhere along the way. I remember when this film came out. I remember seeing it in theaters. I remember hearing the comments around me and reading reviews of the film from all different outlets. One thing had been certain to me. Much like when Phantom of the Opera was released, the musical theater crowd was not very happy. The movie going crowd, however, was. (This opinion may have changed over time. This is simply how I remember things in 2007, before anybody possibly jumps down my throat about it). And, thank goodness they were. This is, after all, a movie musical.
Okay. Let’s get fully get into this, shall we? Because I have five pages of typed notes to go through for this post and we haven’t got all day.
If you don’t know anything about the film, here’s a bit of background. Sweeney Todd, who is also Benjamin Barker, has just returned to London after spending years in Australia as a prisoner on a “trumped up charge”. He is back in London to find out what happened to his wife and daughter. Once he discovers that (spoiler alert) his wife is dead (“Poisoned herself, arsenic, from the apothecary around the corner” are Mrs. Lovett’s exact words) and that Judge Turpin, the man who imprisoned him, has his daughter, Johanna, he sets out to get revenge on the Judge. He wants to kill him. With his razor blades. As you do.
The film is directed by Tim Burton and, in true 2000’s Tim Burton style, this film is dark. Not just the content. The film is literally dark. There’s this bluish-gray hue over everything. I like this for several reasons. It helps to portray London as a drab place. This dark hue really separates the flashbacks, which are all bright and happy, much like Todd’s past was, from the reality. But, my favorite reason, by far, is that the dark background makes the blood stand out that much more. Yes, we all know that blood is not that color. Sometimes things in film are done solely for the effect or for the reaction that it will provoke from the audience. The color of the blood in this film is one of those things.
While I’m on the topic of Tim Burton and his directing choices, he brought his “A-game” when it comes to framing in this film. I mean, COME ON.
As far as this cast goes, they may not all be singers, but dammit, this cast works. Depp is not known for singing. He does not sing. He took some voice lessons before filming to help a bit. And, even though he’s not a great singer, it still works. His voice 100% fits the character of Sweeney. Alan Rickman, R.I.P., is despicable and disgusting as Judge Turpin, which is the point. Timothy Spall is underappreciated in everything, I feel like. Laura Michelle Kelly, Jayne Wisner,Jamie Campbell Bower and Ed Sanders give wonderful performances. Helena Bonham Carter made this film while super pregnant (which I would be willing to bet you didn’t notice before. Go back and rewatch the film. You’ll notice it now. Although, upon first viewing, I did think something was up because her boobs were ridiculous in this film). So, kudos to HBC. And that leaves us with the most surprising one of all, in my opinion: Mr. Sacha Baron Cohen. When this film was released, he had done Ali G and the more widely known, Borat. Neither one of those mentioned are anything like Sweeney Todd. And, yet, come to find out that SBC is a musical theater fan (who sang the entire score of Fiddler on the Roof for his audition, btw) and fucking crushes it in his bit part in this film. His performance as Pirelli/ Davy Collins is fantastic. I don’t know of anybody who could have done the part better on film.
Let’s talk music. Sondheim musicals are hard to sing. Period. The actors in this film, however, pull it off beautifully. Sure, a couple verses here and there were cut along with some of the more difficult harmonies, but that doesn’t weaken anybody’s performance. This musical is one that there are no pointless, filler songs. Each song advances the plot or a character in some way, shape, or form. The songs blend seamlessly into the dialogue, which can’t be said for all movie musicals. A lot of this, I think, is because the large chorus numbers were cut. “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” for instance, and the chorus part in the song “God, That’s Good!” were cut from the film. Had they been in there, the whole thing would have felt unnatural, with all of the Londoners joining in in song. It was a good call on Burton’s part to leave that out. And, Sondheim, from what I remember reading, didn’t hate it. In fact, it made sense to him to cut those bits.
Real talk for a second: I hate the song “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”. I know that it serves a purpose. I know that it tells of how lonely Johanna is and what her longings are, but I just find it high pitched and boring as hell. Also, there is no way Anthony heard Johanna singing that song through a closed window two-stories up.
So, looking over my notes as not to bore you much longer (if you are, in fact bored. And, if you are, how dare you? Why have you continued to read this?), I think I need to write a post solely about Mrs. Lovett and her motivation for doing literally anything in this film and then another post all about Sweeney Todd and revenge being his whole life and what that actually means. That seems to be what a lot of my notes are about. Or, maybe I’ll just post the notes at some point. Only time will tell.
The last fifteen minutes of this film is truly heartbreaking. From Todd killing his Lucy, not realizing it was her until it was too late, to him meeting his daughter but not knowing it’s his daughter, to the reveal that he was, in a way, betrayed by Mrs. Lovett, and to him, ultimately, waiting for death as Toby (who for sure will be a messed up adult because of the toe in the pie and, well, the murder) walks up behind Sweeney Todd and slits his throat. It all hurts my heart. But, it’s beautifully done. The music, the lyrics, the framing, the coloring, all of it, wonderfully done.