Even when they leave you and vanish they somehow can still remain there

It took me two viewings of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd to realize an essential truth: blood makes musicals awesome.

It didn't occur to me the first time I saw this story, as a 16-year-old Sondheim fan naively sitting down to watch a PBS airing of the 1979 Broadway musical, which originally starred Angela Lansbury, in a star turn as Mrs. Lovett, and Len Cariou, replaced in the televised version by George Hearn as the demon barber of Fleet. Street. (The pause between the two words is necessary.)

That first time, I was so shocked by the horror of the subject matter that I failed to appreciate the humor. It grossed me out sufficiently that I wouldn't eat meat for a couple weeks after seeing it. (I was a sensitive, late-blooming teenager who didn't see a real horror movie until the age of 22 or so.) It's been years since I've seen that version (having made my mother hide the video so I would never again have to think about human pies again.)

Years later, after a NYC Opera performance, and the 2005 B'way revival starring Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris, I was finally able to appreciate the beauty of the music and the deliciously macabre subject matter. Now a seasoned horror-movie watcher, the thought of spurting blood and ground human oozing from a grinder no longer dampens my appetite for meat, nor spookiness. Although I never got a copy of the OCR*, I downloaded enough random songs from the S.T. to appreciate most of them, and never feel like skipping past "Pretty Women" or "By the Sea" when they pop up during random play mode.

I was apprehensive about the movie, not as a Sondheim purist intimately familiar with every detail of the original, but as someone who had lately been burned by Mr Burton once too many. I am not able to forgive him for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (horror of psychedelia having replaced my horror of human butchery), but with Sweeney Todd, I am able to appreciate him again as a director.

The movie is gorgeous to look at. The grittiness of 19th-century London is palpable, and the muted colors dominating most of the movie really let that blood-paint pop. Most of the overtly theatrical elements of the stage show (the Greek chorus, the steam whistle that sounds each time a victim gets it, and, well, quite a lot of the songs) are gone, but they're not much missed, because this movie takes the story away from the stage entirely. It revels in its untheatricality, the camera following Antony down London streets and rolling with rivers of blood down London gutters.

The performances are, by and large, incredibly good. I really loved Helena Bonham Carter's blowsy, goth-sexpot Mrs Lovett, so much that I was able to entirely forgive her pathetically weak singing voice; she acted the songs, and films, unlike stages, are perfect media for gin-soaked whispers. Johnny Depp is some sort of acting god; his singing voice, though not strong, was pleasant, and like Bonham Carter, he acted the hell out of every song. His Sweeney was something new - not funny, like Cariou or Hearn, nor trembly-voiced and emotional, like Cerveris's - his Sweeney was brooding, growly and pretty fucking terrifying. His only flaw was the Bonnie-Raitt-skunk-patch they made him wear. Ed Sanders' Tobias had a gorgeous singing voice, and although he needs a little more practice stepping out of dead-eyed-choirboy mode when he starts to sing, his acting was otherwise excellent. And although I am predisposed to perpetually feeling that my secret middle-aged British boyfriend has been underused in every movie, and although this movie is no exception in that regard, I found each moment he was on the screen to be simultaneously creepy and comical; although sufficiently loathsome, his was the first Judge Turpin that I wouldn't really mind watching me undress. He just needs to trim those fingernails; no need to take the "with a gesture of his claw" line so literally. The "Pretty Women" scene and reprise, where he and Depp harmonize so sweetly, were the most satisfying, to me, of any cinematic musical since 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Pretty Women/Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman (mp3)

Purchase Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street from Amazon Digital

As for that blood: I knew the movie was genius the moment when, in Johanna II, perhaps the prettiest, liltingest tune in the bunch, the first, squelch-y squirt of blood came shooting out, and continued to spurt, almost on the beat, throughout the rest of the song. When you see that number on stage, no matter how good the special effects are in the theatre, there's just no way for it to squelch. With Burton, no punches were pulled - the blood shot right out at us, and the song danced so prettily on, and I just started to laugh; I had never "gotten" that song until that moment. Tim Burton really is bloody brilliant.

If you're new to Sweeney, try the original recording first, and see Angela Lansbury work her magic before you attempt this. If you're familiar enough with that version that you're ready to go somewhere new, see the movie. (Clicking this last link will take you to the official site, where you can sample audio. I recommend skipping straight to "Pretty Women", but, again, I'm biased as hell. Alan Rickman is my man.)

*"Original Cast Recording", for you non-nerds.

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Blogger d said...

I'll try and post the Pretty Women mp3 when I get back. Also - Striped. Victorian. Bathing Costume.

1:16 PM, December 30, 2007  
Anonymous chantheboy said...

Dear Tavie.

Brilliant review. By the by, you are a pussois.

Made mom hide the tape???

I would like to remind all juries that Sweeny Todd can be sold as an example of simple gory entertainment. Most of my friends cannot stomach continuous bursts of song. Watching a musical live and on the screen are two different things. For those who squirm or snore when shoved into an orchestra seat, may you at least appreciate the larger than life spectacle of this movie. All one can adore about Burton in the classic sense is back. All the dreary reality, the goth emo under-eye circles, the pure, daunting madness, the macabre humor, etc. This musical and this director are a match made in Heaven.

1:47 AM, December 31, 2007  
Blogger therese said...

I loved it- it was Burton at his Burton-est. I went opening night with my friend Julie, who is the biggest Sondheim fan I know. She was terrifed by the review in the Times, which compared ST to Saw!


Whatever, New York Times. I think it was just a matter of AO Scott not having the musical theater vocab- he should have enlisted Ben Brantley's help.

3:10 PM, January 04, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loverf that movie especially the songs, but could you also post the song johanna?

8:58 AM, February 16, 2008  
Blogger Valentina said...

agree on all you say about Alan...everything :-)

11:09 AM, May 13, 2010  

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