Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham-Carter have made so many films together that they’re starting to resemble each other. Depp has now made 6 films with Burton and it always seems as though he’s playing some hyper-real and slightly paler version of the ghostly director. As for Bonham-Carter, this is either her fourth or fifth round with Burton depending on whether you consider her voice acting in “Corpse Bride” an appearance and as his “life partner” and mother of his two children, she’s on her way to becoming the living embodiment of one of his cadaverous drawings.
All three seem like a traveling band of Grand Guignol performers just looking for the right gloomy play that requires frizzy black hair and dark circles under the eyes. Luckily, they found Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant 1979 musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and lucky for Sondheim that he found them. Not since Francis Ford Coppola signed to direct “The Godfather” has there been a more perfect match between artist and material.
“Sweeney” is one of Sondheim’s most complex creations but in the wrong hands it could be nothing more than the penny dreadful story that inspired it. The story is pure fiction although it has achieved notoriety more as an urban legend than from any one published source. By the time George Dibden Pitt wrote a play called “Sweeney Todd The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in 1847 it was already billed as being “based on fact”. This version(as well as most that followed)told the bloodcurdling story of a razor wielding killer barber who supplies his meatpie making partner-in-crime Mrs. Lovett with choice cuts from his shop.
Never comfortable with merely being a simple tunesmith cranking out pretty melodies like Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sondheim is one of those really talented artists who seems to have a strange contempt for his own abilities. The way Marlon Brando seemed to hate the ease with which he could play a role. Sondheim possesses a considerable intellect and an obsession or games and puzzles which supposedly inspired Anthony Shaffer to base the character of Andrew Wyke in his hit play “Sleuth” on the composer. By the time of “Sweeney”, he and director Harold Prince were the darlings of Broadway with a string of critical if not always box office successes like “Company”, “A Little Night Music” and “Pacific Overtures”. Sondheim had left the simple lyrics of “West Side Story” long behind and was beginning to experiment with more complex subject matter and the use of music and lyrics in a kind of counterpoint, playing note against note, voice against voice in a manner Jeffery Jones complains about in Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” as simply having, “Too many notes”.
It wasn’t the penny dreadful version of “Sweeney” that caught Sondheim’s attention but rather the 1973 adaptation by playwright Christopher Bond which mixed Dibden Pitt’s old play with elements of “The Revenger’s Tragedy”. Significantly, Bond gave Sweeney a more sympathetic motivation for his crimes by having him be a victim of a vile, pious Judge who rapes his wife and steals his baby daughter after sending him to prison on a trumped up charge. This Sweeney returns to a hellish London 15 years later, filled with hate, and with the intent on getting his vengeance against the man who ruined his life. Sondheim saw the possibilities of a kind of Grand Guignol opera in the story and he and playwright Hugh Wheeler began to construct a new version, one that would incorporate melodrama, tragedy, horror, black humor and social
commentary. A real tonal tightrope walk.
It was this complex tone that Sondheim, Wheeler, and Prince tried to balance so that the blood did not drown out the social commentary or that the social commentary did not become so pretentious that the personal tragedy became unimportant or that the gloomy mood cast a shadow over the sly, mischievous humor. All elements needed to be just right in order for the show to work and over the years many did not, as Burton has noted himself. Some versions simplified it by cutting back on the gore, but this is always a mistake, as the blood is as essential to the show as the singing. Some played Sweeney more sympathetically but this is wrong too since he and Mrs. Lovett are a pair of monsters living in a hellish London full of demons. Everyone is supposed to be meat to feed the machine that is the industrialized world.
Burton, along with screenwriter John Logan, had to simplify as well since their version has to work as a movie, not merely a filmed play, but their work is very smart, always keeping in line with the spirit of the original. With a large budget Hollywood production you always expect certain changes that would normally sink the whole enterprise, like making both Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett less homicidal or more repentant and losing much of the blood and violence. If anything, Burton’s version is even more severe, more committed to a stylized horror show aesthetic. In many ways, it’s his best work to date.
One of the stumbling blocks in adapting musical theater to film is the fact that the theatricality is usually the first thing tossed out. At first, this seems like the right idea, a way to re-examine the material in a cinematic manner, opening the show up to show the real world at large. The problem is that in the harsh light of day, on real locations, the magical atmosphere of a show can be lost. A show like “Sweeney” would lose almost all of it’s dreamlike power under the skies of a “real” London since it doesn’t take place anywhere real at all and its characters are so broadly drawn they would appear ludicrous moving about “our” world.
Everything about the approach is a tightrope walk of taste and control. Burton could’ve simply made the correct decision to shoot the film on sets in a more theatrical manner but this would not have made the material cinematic, it would’ve confirmed the idea that theater and film do not mix. A play cannot be merely photographed in order for it to work as a film. It would just make apparent the inability of film to capture the electricity of live performance. Film has many strengths, but its main weakness is that it’s a dead medium, lifeless recordings of past events that cannot change, cannot be spontaneous.
Burton’s vision for the film is the result of his years of experience with the cinematic medium. He and Logan make sharp cuts in the musical that go a long way to focusing the story into a real movie experience. The Greek chorus of Londoners is removed since that’s a total convention of theater and very alienating onscreen. Sondheim, Wheeler, and Prince originally conceived of the chorus so that the penny dreadful plot could be placed into a larger social and historical context-a very Brechtian notion of “waking” the audience up repeatedly to think about the situations in a broader sense. Burton doesn’t just lose this idea, though, he transforms it into his whole concept. Instead of having performers come on to sing about the conditions of the city and of man’s repeated inhumanity to man, Burton puts it onscreen.
It’s seen in the squalor of the sets; the dank, dripping sewers which run red with blood and the insects and vermin crawling about Mrs. Lovett’s shop. It’s also seen in several very intense scene transitions where the camera flies down alleys, peeks into windows and doors and is given swift, frightening glimpses at the violence and abuse of Victorian London. These are very unique sequences that were obviously created with CGI but in an incredibly personal and artful manner. What we see here looks at once like cut outs in a pop-up book of horrors which have somehow come to life, creating a real sense of the uncanny. The people and places look both real and unreal at the same time, keeping it both theatrical while transforming it into the cinematic.
The script also makes cuts in the subplot involving the young lovers, sailor Anthony Hope and Sweeney’s imprisoned daughter, Joanna. In the musical this subplot gave the dark play a sense of “Hope”, allowing the lovers to flee together for brighter futures. Burton and Logan sharpen this as well by making Joanna doubt that all things will end happily. We do not see the lovers flee, our last sight of poor Joanna is her witnessing the bloody murder of Judge Turpin. The film sticks with Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett at the end, keeping this adaptation an unrelenting tale of obsession, empty revenge and hate.
The film is not humorless, though. It’s filled with jet black humor and a great comic sequence featuring Sacha Baron Cohen as the con artist “Pirelli” who gets into a shaving match with Sweeney in the town square. Cohen is only in two scenes in the film but he’s a great presence onscreen and it’s fun to watch he and Depp match wits as characters and actors.
The performers had a real challenge with Sondheim’s lyrics. These are not simple rhymes and melodies but rather complex patterns of alliteration with a very peculiar and jerky pace. Depp and Bonham-Carter are not trained singers nor are they going to win “American Idol” this year. But this is to the film’s advantage. Both invest themselves fully into their characters and give voices to them which extend to their singing. They sing as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett might in their shower, occasionally off key but always on message. Depp is as great as expected but Bonham-Carter might be even better, giving a performance of real subtlety in a broad story with caricatured people. Certainly, her song “By the Sea” in which she fantasizes about a sunny and romantic future for the two of them, is the highlight of the movie. It’s funny and sad at the same time, featuring the most colorful and pretty images in the film which hang in your memory like Joanna’s doubts about happy endings. It’s the future never to be. In ”Sweeney Todd” the world is always a “great black pit…filled with the vermin that inhabit it…BUT NOT FOR LONG.”
Hold your razor high, Sweeney!
Tim Burton (director) / John Logan (screenplay), Stephen Sondheim, Hugh Wheeler (musical), Christopher Bond (musical adaptation)
CAST: Johnny Depp … Sweeney Todd
Helena Bonham Carter … Mrs. Lovett
Alan Rickman … Judge Turpin
Timothy Spall … Beadle Bamford
Sacha Baron Cohen … Signor Adolfo Pirelli
Jamie Campbell Bower … Anthony Hope
Laura Michelle Kelly … Lucy / Beggar Woman
Jayne Wisener … Johanna