It took me two screenings and a copy of the soundtrack, but I am now convinced that I absolutely love Sweeney Todd. My first screening was marred by terrible audio and even my second screening was bad as the top of the picture wasn’t actually on the screen, but all things combined and taken into consideration tell me that a perfect screening of Sweeney Todd is sure to entertain any open-minded moviegoer. The key here is open-minded.
This is a musical. I would venture to say about 80% of the film involves singing of some variation. If you can’t handle that, such as one gentleman I informed at my second screening, then you may want to do as he did and forget it. The credits hadn’t even started yet before he had shown himself to the door. For the rest of you, sit back, relax and get ready for a wild, musical and bloody ride.
Sweeney Todd is based on the classic Stephen Sondheim musical from 1979, when Angela Lansbury starred as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou played the role of Sweeney Todd. Director Tim Burton has taken the musical and made it exactly what you would expect from a Burton film. It’s creepy in its blackened state, yet colorful once the blood begins to flow. Johnny Depp stars as the barber Benjamin Barker. Married and in love with his wife Lucy and their young child Johanna, he soon becomes the victim of the plot laid out be the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Jealous of Barker’s family and his overall infatuation with Lucy, Turpin banishes Barker from London for 15 years of false imprisonment. As we all know, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in the case of Barker it does a whole lot more.
The film opens with a massive shot of a ship sailing into the London ports where we first meet Benjamin Barker, but not as the Barker of 15-years prior. Now donning a pale white face of revenge, he has adopted the name Sweeney Todd and after his 15 years served he has returned to London with an eye for revenge. His story introduces us to a variety of nefarious characters including Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett whose meat pies aid Mr. Sweeney’s plot.
You will also meet the animated Italian Pirelli played by Sacha Baron Cohen in a role that is too small to contain his talent. Cohen only has about 10 minutes time on screen (if that) and dominates. Considering his roots are performing in various characters dating back to his days as Ali G, Bruno and most notably, Borat, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he can act, but I can say that I am surprised he is this good.
Alan Rickman turns in a worthy performance in a limited role, as does Timothy Spall as his filthy henchman Beadle Bamford, but the show belongs to Depp and Bonham Carter equally. While neither one of them are claiming to be singers of the highest standards they never miss a beat, and Carter’s English accent seems perfectly utilized within the lyrics of the songs she sings. Her opening performance of “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea” are not only comical inside the confines of the film, they are also songs that can be listened to independently of the film and still hold their value.
However, the song to be remembered here is “Johanna”. Young Jamie Campbell Bower has his own performance of the song early in the film, but I can’t stop playing Depp’s rendition later on the film as he sings it while treating us to our first throat slashing montage, and as the blood spills and the bodies pile up the film just gets better and better as it goes on.
To say all this is fine and dandy, but my guess is that this is going to find a niche market and probably not find its way out to a broader range of audience members. This is unfortunate for sure, considering imaginative films such as this are a blessing in the grand scheme of things, but the chances of getting general audiences into seeing a musical that doesn’t include one of today’s biggest pop stars is out of the question. Granted, Johnny Depp should draw in a few auds, but like I said earlier, once people learn it is a flat out musical they will surely lose interest.