What is it about working with Johnny Depp that really seems to bring the best out of Tim Burton? It’s not that Burton can’t direct a good film without Depp in the cast, such as crowd pleasers like Batman or Big Fish, but when Depp is his leading man, there seems to be some spark in the film-maker’s work that just isn’t there otherwise. It’s as if he waits to work with Depp before the director decides to really push himself creatively, and the results are more morbidly personal works such as Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. In the case of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, this is also a truism, as the movie feels as if the director were right at home in the world of music and misery he has created, and Depp shines like never before in front the director’s camera. In the end, the picture may not just be the best movie that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have ever worked on together; it may be the best film either has ever been associated with period.
Now it’s safe to say that man who see Sweeney Todd will not necessarily enjoy it. The film has Burton’s sensibilities all over it; this is a dark tale of vengeance, both thematically and literally, and nineteenth century London is presented in the dreariest way possible, as its streets run full of beggars and thieves, and its upper crust and establishment seem capable of deplorable behavior when behind closed doors. On top of that, the film’s hero is an out and out murderer bordering on insanity, with his acts of violence bringing him closer and closer to the final retribution that he may or may not be able to obtain. Also, for a major Hollywood production, the film earns its R rating with ample helpings of gore and yes, several acts of cannibalism.
Yet none of those may be the factor that keeps away the most people. Honestly, the biggest barrier this film faces is not its exploitable elements, but by the fact that it’s a Musical. Now, granted the Musical has made quite a comeback in the last few years, with pictures such as Moulin Rouge and Chicago winning some Oscar glory, and movies like Hairspray and those High School Musical flicks bringing in all kinds box office high receipts; but with Sweeney Todd it seems to have a few more factors against it. Most gore-hounds who would see this movie out of morbid curiosity probably aren’t into Musicals and the teen market that helped to give many of these other films a boost isn’t even allowed to watch the R-rated Sweeney.
Despite all this, it can’t be argued that the film that we’re left with isn’t the one that Tim Burton wanted to produce, and though this is his first live action foray into the genre, Burton makes the most out the format to bring us a movie of great power and some of the best performances many of these actors have ever had. In fact, it’s downright shocking just how good Johnny Depp is in the lead role of this picture. It’s not that Depp isn’t a world-class actor, but with no formal training you would think he would be hampered by the role’s many musical requirements. You would be wrong.
Though not gifted with a booming “Broadway” voice, Depp absolutely makes most of the talent given to him, and the results are quite astonishing. Thing is, even though he bursts into song every five minutes or so, there’s something very natural about his performance. As is also the case with Alan Rickman in this picture to some degree, because Depp doesn’t have a giant operatic voice, it doesn’t tend to call unnecessary attention to it either. What we’re left with is a performance that absolutely makes terrific use of the gorgeous Stephen Sondheim musical numbers without ever seeming overproduced or “fake”.
Another reason the film’s numbers work is because of the insistence of Director Burton on keeping the proceedings as intimate as possible. Big chorus numbers from the original theater production have been excised in favor of keeping the film centered on Depp’s Todd, Helena Bonham Carter as his accomplice Mrs. Lovett, and Alan Rickman’s evil, yet sadly sympathetic Judge Turpin. But even with all this, I’m not sure the film would work as well as it does without the director deeply knowing and feeling this material in the way the Burton really seems to.
Thankfully, one of the big ways that Burton keeps the proceedings from becoming too dour is by employing a ton of pitch black humor. There’s just something funny about the juxtaposition of the gorgeously sung rendition of Sondheim’s reprise of the number “Johanna,” especially considering the depths of sadness expressed by Sweeney Todd in the piece, all while the most horrible throat slitting you’ve ever seen keeps taking place over and over. Buckets of blood are thrown at the screen, and bodies fall into Todd’s trap in the most violent of fashion, and yet countered with the dichotomy of what is almost a sad lullaby, what you’re left with is an absolutely hilarious and hypnotic sequence.
The same can been said for much of the numbers that Burton uses here, especially his use of horrific and yet beautifully lit flashbacks and humorous fantasy sequences as well. Burton wisely stages the pieces as to not make them too “big”, letting his actors and performers wrench out as much emotion as possible without letting the theatrics of it all overwhelm them on screen. It’s a precise balancing act for the director, and it’s nice to see him nimbly managing the entire production as well as he does.
It’s very possible that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street could have been a complete disaster. The entire production could have come off as too stage-like or overproduced which would have distracted from the film’s overall aesthetic and lost focus away from powerful story of vengeance. Wisely, Director Tim Burton decided to pick and choose when it came to the numbers he used for the picture and let the talents of his cast make the overall film simply work onscreen. The result is probably the most assured film from either Burton or his illustrious star, and hopefully we will see the duo put their talents to work together again soon, and perhaps more masterpieces are still yet to come.
The Blu-ray transfer on the film is pretty spectacular. The darks and grays of Burton’s overall aesthetic and production design ring very true on this print, and there’s little to no film grain present. Also the audio absolutely blasts home Stephen Sondheim’s incredible music on this disc. There was a rumor that Sweeney Todd was going to be one of Paramount’s last HD-DVD titles, but I’m just glad they waited for this format, and what we’ve ended up with is an amazing example of the beauty of the Blu-ray.
Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd – A pretty detailed account of the evolution of this film from stage to screen. Stephen Sondheim comments on how he thought that this film would never have a proper representation onscreen, and how he was surprised at how Burton was able to get the job done. Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are all interviewed here, and we get to see a lot of their preparation for the movie.
Sweeney Todd Press Conference – This press Conference goes 20 minutes or so and gets some candid interviews from many of the cast and crew.
Sweeney Todd is Alive: The Real History of The Demon Barber – Probably the best feature on the entire disc, this has historians and Director Burton recount the legend of Sweeney Todd and how he went from mythical figure to the stage and then screen versions of the character. I love the evolution this myth, and how Sweeney is more than likely a composite of several different people who were real-life maniacs, including one legend of a barber who killed weary travelers and fed them to his children.
Sweeney’s London – A documentary examining the Victorian London that this movie seems to be set, as well as the London of a century earlier that actually gave birth to the myth. Historians talk about the horrible conditions on the streets as well as in the prisons of London at the time. This is a terrific history lesson about the terrible social conditions that would have helped to form this infamous legend.
Designs for a Demon Barber – This 8-minute Featurette goes over the production, set, and costume design done for the movie. The most important thing that Director Tim Burton says about the movie is that he wanted to not place this movie in the real Victorian London, but the London of Horror movies. This is the Universal Horror movie London, and for this film that is an absolutely perfect juxtaposition.
Musical Mayhem: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd – A Featurette tracing the history of the Sondheim musical and why it is so regarded in the theater world. I wish there was some actual footage from a stage performance here, but this is still a nice examination of the original Musical.
The Making of Sweeney Todd – This is your pretty standard DVD “Making of” extra with short interviews and behind the scenes footage.
Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition – A terrifically detailed look at the Grand Guignol tradition of Horror theater, from its beginnings in France to its modern day interpretations. With amazing stills and stories from past productions to footage of a modern theater in San Francisco trying to carry on the tradition, this is a wonderful look at an art form that needs to make a huge comeback.
Bloody Business – A Featurette deals with the physical effects used in the movie and the effects designers highlight just how intricate the process of making all that blood splatter really is.
Moviefone Unscripted with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – This is a really goofy segment with the director and star sharing and answering fan questions like “Where did you two meet?” and “What were your inspirations for this film?” and that sort of thing.
The Razor’s Refrain – A Photo Gallery to set to music from the film.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a gorgeous film, and on this disc it gets the print that it deserves. This disc is also packed with extras looking at both the history that surrounds the myth of Sweeney Todd as well as the making of the film itself and the inspirations that helped Tim Burton to construct the look and feel of this movie. For Tim Burton fans, this is a must.
Dreamworks/Paramount presents Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, and Sacha Baron Cohen. Written by John Logan. Running time: 116 minutes. Rated R. Released on Blu-ray: October 21, 2008. Available at Amazon.
Tags: Johnny Depp, Musical, tim burton