CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SWEENEY TODD
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(THE SCENE: a dark, cold street in 19th century London. MICHAEL ARRUDA holds his long coat tight to himself, since there’s a chill in the air and snowflakes have begun to fall. He sees light coming from “Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie Emporium” and like a moth to the flame, he approaches. As he opens the door, a bell jingles, and he sees L.L. SOARES sitting at a table which is almost completely covered in round, thick meat pies).
LS: It’s about time you got here! You’ve got to try these pies, they are quite delicious.
(MA sits down. A serving boy pours a pitcher of ale into his cup. MA hungrily grabs one of the meat pies and bites into it.)
MA: What the hell? What’s this?
LS: What’s the matter?
MA (pulls a finger from his mouth): By God, there’s a human finger in me pie!
LS: Yes, isn’t that great? A prize in every pie, Mrs. Lovett says! I got a whole mouth full of teeth in one of mine. I’m going to put them under my pillow and get a fortune from the tooth fairy. What wonderful pies – delicious and they have more prizes than Cracker Jack.
MA: (looks disgusted): Wonderful pies, my butt! The damn things need salt! (Pours salt onto a pie). Now we’re talking! Mmm. Yummy. Okay, on with the review.
LS: Okay. SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is the new collaboration between director Tim Burton and star Johnny Depp. It’s the tale of a wrongfully imprisoned man who comes back to London to seek revenge on the despicably corrupt judge who sent him away in order to steal his wife. Once a kindly barber by the name of Benjamin Barker, he now takes on the nom de plume of Sweeney Todd to set up shop once more and bring customers to an untimely and bloody end.
The film is based on the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim, who is well known for his smart lyrics and for having a bit more of an edge than other composers, and the subject matter here is quite gruesome indeed. We have a barber who slits throats, bodies turned into meat pies, a creepy old judge who intends to marry his adopted daughter, roaches aplenty and devious con men. London of this time period is not a particularly cheerful place, and Tim Burton does a fine job of bringing the Broadway play to cinematic life. He has the visuals and atmosphere all down perfect. And you can’t ask for a better lead than Depp, who seems incapable of doing anything wrong these days.
But there is one problem I have with the film. You see, it’s a musical. And I friggin hate musicals!
LS bursts into song (Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells”):
They’re like kryptonite to me
They make my hair stand on end
And my li-ttle ears bleed.”
MA(singing)(to the tune of The Beatle’s “Yesterday,” more or less):
I have no problem with musicals.
I just don’t like this musical
It’s sad and boring and dark and dumb
And you don’t have no hair at all.”
LS: Sweeney Todd’s accomplice in this skullduggery is Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), a pie maker whose business has hit the skids, mostly due to the lack of good meat in London at the time. But when Todd makes his first kill, getting rid of a blackmailing con-man, and the subject of how to dispose of the body arises, Mrs. Lovett comes up with the wonderful idea of baking the corpse meat into her pies. Suddenly, her shop is a hit and she’s the talk of the town! And Todd’s wonderful close shaves are to die for!
MA: (rubs his cheeks) I could use a shave myself.
LS: Yes, yes. Soon, my friend.
MA: In your dreams, barber boy! Get on with the review.
LS: The main focus of Todd’s bile however is the vile Judge Turpin (the fine Alan Rickman) who had him falsely imprisoned for 15 years so that he could pressure Todd’s poor wife Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly) into marrying him. She takes poison soon after however, leaving behind the child she had with Sweeney, the equally fair-haired and beautiful Johanna (the striking Jayne Wisener), who becomes Turpin’s ward. But the judge does not look on her with fatherly eyes, as he plans to marry her himself once she comes of age. When she refuses his advances, he has her locked in a madhouse!
So the judge certainly deserves the fate Sweeney Todd has in store for him, but the question is, how will our hero get access to the judge’s throat? And therein is the plot of this particularly yarn.
Like I said, I hate musicals, and that’s my dilemma. The opening scene of the film encapsulates my problem entirely. As a large vessel approaches London harbor, we first hear the singing of Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) whose voice is what one would call typical of the musical genre. He clearly has ability, but to tell you the truth, every time the lad opened his mouth, my head throbbed with an impending headache. So much do I hate the trappings of the modern musical.
And then, in response to Anthony’s song, we hear the voice of Johnny Depp. Many people have wondered if Depp can sing, and the truth is, he can, but not in any way like the “professional” musical-theater types, of which Bower is a perfect example. Depp’s voice is less trained, and he sounds a bit like David Bowie. And for that reason, his is the only singing voice in the film I can actually tolerate!
A subplot concerning the songbird Anthony and the imprisoned Johanna, with whom he falls in love, is like torture to me. Both sing in the classic musical style, and their scenes made me want to flee the theater screaming. Luckily, they are not on screen enough to ruin the film completely.
MA: I would disagree with you on that point. Can we just say the film stunk and go home? I’ve got cookies to bake. Look, unlike you, I like musicals. I even like horror musicals. I liked the flawed PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (2004), for example. I didn’t love it, but it was OK. But I didn’t like SWEENEY TODD at all, and here’s why.
Number one, the music. The songs did nothing for me. I don’t think in the course of writing this column, I’ve ever agreed with you more, in that the songs and subplot involving Anthony and Johanna were torture, absolute torture! And no kidding, when they were singing, that’s exactly how I felt as well- I wanted to get up and get the hell out of that theater, and I like musicals! My skin crawled! Now, this isn’t a reflection on their ability. Their singing was fine, but in a film about a throat-slitting barber, it just didn’t mix, and it didn’t help that the songs were nauseating. I left the movie without liking even one song. That’s pretty bad.
LS (Rises from his seat): I thought the throat-slitting went well with the throat-warbling, especially since I hated the latter. Alas, it is time for that shave I promised you! Upstairs we go!
(FADE TO BLACK)
(An unseen Narrator with a deep voice sings to the tune of “YOU’RE A MEAN ONE, MR. GRINCH):
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Soares
You’re a mangy, horrid man
Your breath smells of brimstone and you have brain matter on your shirt
(A new scene unfolds, as we find ourselves in a shadowy apartment with a barber chair. LS is sharpening a blade on a leather strap merrily)
LS: Of course, not everyone here can sing that well. The lovely Helena Bonham Carter (who was so great in films like FIGHT CLUB and who is married to director Burton) gives it a hearty go, but falls short. And actors like Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall (as the judge’s thug) are pretty bad singers, but courageous nonetheless. This is not to put them down, I think the cast is great. One who fares better is Sacha Baron Cohen (yes, Borat himself!), who portrays the pompous Signor Adolfo Pirelli. He plays the role to the hilt, and is perhaps the funniest character in the entire production. His shaving showdown in the public square with Depp’s Todd is one of the film’s highlights.
Another fun part is a fantasy sequence where Mrs. Lovett imagines what it would be like to marry Todd, the object of her affections. In various imaginary scenes, which include the two on a beach and getting married before a priest, Todd stays true to form as dour, brooding and fixated only on his revenge plot, which is pretty funny.
MA: I agree with you on both those points.
LS: As I said, Burton’s direction is fine here, but he’s a very iffy director in my mind. I know he has a fanatical following, but for every film of his I’ve loved (ED WOOD is a true masterpiece, and I really enjoyed SLEEPY HOLLOW; both films of course starred Depp), there have been others that haven’t been as successful (his remake of PLANET OF THE APES is a travesty and one of the worst films I’ve ever seen). Depp does seem to be his good luck charm, though, and if there’s any reason to see this film, it’s Depp’s terrific performance as the demon barber.
MA: I think I like Burton more than you, but I would agree that not all his films have succeeded, and that’s true for any artist. I just really like his visual style. Most of the time, I simply enjoy sitting back and looking at his movies. They usually look terrific, and SWEENEY TODD is no exception. Visually, it’s satisfying. And as much as I like Tim Burton, I have to agree with you again— I’m getting tired of agreeing with you so much today— that his PLANET OF THE APES is awful.
Johnny Depp is terrific, and his singing does sound like David Bowie. I thought he sung like Bowie, spoke like Michael Caine, and looked eerily like Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice (another Burton flick) at times! Depp is the best part of this movie by far, though I enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter very much too, but they didn’t save the movie for me.
LS: The Beetlejuice connection is not so far-fetched. There is a sight gag in Carter’s fantasy sequence where Depp is on the beach wearing black and white striped long underwear, which brings to mind a certain Michael Keaton character. Ready for that shave now? (Raises the open razor).
MA: Do you think I’m stupid? I saw the movie. I know where you’re going with this.
LS: Oh yes, the gore. Another saving grace of this film is the generous amounts of human wine. Despite the musical numbers, Burton does not skimp on the bloodletting. Straight razors to the throat produce fountains of blood, and it’s this generous bleeding which balanced out the horrid singing for me.
MA: See, I didn’t like the gore. We’ve had this debate many times before. I am not against blood and gore in the movies, but for me, it has to fit, there has to be a reason for it, and here, in a musical, albeit a dark musical, it’s just gross, especially in this day and age, when a certain group of individuals in the real world choose throat slitting and beheadings as their mode of terror, I just couldn’t get into it or have fun with it.
LS: Aw, you’re just an old sour-puss who takes everything much too seriously.
MA: I can’t help it. That’s what I was thinking as I watched those scenes. So, as much as I like Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter, I didn’t like SWEENEY TODD. It looked good, the acting and singing was fine, but it was dreary, the songs weren’t memorable, the story predictable, and the gore gratuitous. SWEENEY TURD is a stinker.
LS: What a downer. I had a mixed reaction. While I despised the horrible songs (except when it was Depp doing the singing), I suppose I enjoyed this film. If only I could have had a “mute” button for the irritating parts, the movie would have been better still.
But I must admit, I’ve had much more fun writing this column about SWEENEY TODD than I did watching the film.
MA: You can say that again.
LS: I should note that the story of Sweeney Todd is an old one, and has been filmed before in non-musical versions. If you enjoy the tale, you can also check out the wonderful 1936 British version starring the underrated Tod Slaughter in the title role, and one of my favorite low-budget directors, Andy Milligan, tackled the story in his 1970 film BLOODTHIRSTY BUTCHERS.
MA: Can we go home now?
LS: How about that shave?
MA: How about you listen to the songbird Anthony and the imprisoned Johanna sing again?
LS gives MA the finger— MA takes the severed finger and places it in a small bag.
MA: Thanks. Just some extra ingredients for the cookies I’m baking later today. Extra crunchy. (Smiles slyly)
(originally published on Fear Zone on 12/27/07)
© Copyright 2007 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares