Out of Frame: Sweeney Todd

2007_12_21_sweeney.jpgWe've got a secret for you: Sweeney Todd is a musical. We understand there might be some confusion about that, seeing as how the television ads don't have a single note of singing in them, and if you blink during the theatrical trailer, you'll miss the five seconds of Johnny Depp singing buried in the clip. Make no mistake, though. The vast majority of this film is told in song. On the one hand, it's a shame that DreamWorks is acting ashamed of a musical as fun as Sondheim's, full of challenging, yet entirely accessible songs. But it's pretty clear that they're counting on scoring some extra ticket sales by luring in horror fans with playing up Tim Burton's dark, Gothic vision of the material. And that might be a smart move, because Sweeney Todd may just be that rare musical with broad appeal to audiences who might normally say they don't care for the genre.

Which is no surprise, considering that neither the film's director nor its star have much affinity for the genre themselves. Burton has crafted exactly the kind of musical he'd like to see, which is one that eschews big production numbers and full company set pieces in favor of a more naturalistic approach to the movie musical, if characters breaking into song can ever be considered naturalistic.

The story, which had been bouncing around in various forms for decades of British folk storytelling before Sondheim made it into an international musical sensation, is a fairly straightforward revenge tale: sweet natured barber Benjamin Barker is separated from his wife by a lustful judge who trumps up charges and sends him away for 15 years. Barker returns with a new name and bloodlust in his heart, but when vengeance is slow in coming, he turns his fury upon the hapless men sitting in his chair for a shave. His downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter, playing the the character like a Cockney version of Fight Club's Marla), has a self-destructive taste for darkly mysterious psychopaths, and enters into a partnership with Todd to use the by-product of his murderous inclinations to supply her failing meatpie business. Hilarity ensues, just as in any of the many Broadway musicals concerning serial murder and cannibalism.

OK, so hilarity might be going a little far, but Burton does know when to let up on the overwhelming gloom for a few laughs. By taking the show off the stage and onto the screen, the director is able to infuse the affairs with as much blood, grime, and skin-crawl-inducing elements as the material really calls for (but which is largely impractical for live theater). Especially the blood. I lost count of the number of jugulars that are slit in the course of the movie, but there are many, and Burton shows the murders from many angles, with blood shooting, spurting and flying in all sorts of creative fashions. Few directors besides Dario Argento have ever taken this kind of operatic zeal in the display of gore, and it's not for the squeamish. As a result, without a sense of humor, the film would be a grim affair indeed. But Burton and screenwriter John Logan never fail to recognize the comic notes inherent in Hugh Wheeler's original book for the show. So they're sure to include the go-to comic ringer of the last few years, Sacha Baron Cohen, in a hilarious turn as a rival barber. And the "By the Sea" sequence, in which Mrs. Lovett fantasizes openly about a life of love and comfort with Todd into their golden years, is side-splittingly funny, as Burton throws all the vivid colors of his work on Big Fish around the still pale and dour Todd, making Lovett's fantasy all the more ludicrous.

Still, those moments are comic relief, and much needed relief from the darkest musical you're ever likely to see. Depp's Todd is a tortured character, not given to much talking. He talks less, in fact, than in the original musical. Burton again takes advantage of one of the differences between screen and stage by allowing Depp to play his part mostly through his eyes and his facial expressions. The reactions one can't see from the back of the house are readily apparent on the big screen, and Depp plays his wordless scenes with the skill of a seasoned star of silent film. Eyes flash and fade, brows furrow into an evil grimace, and even when he's pointedly ignoring the questions being asked of him by those around him, he speaks volumes.

Of course, he can't be silent all the time. So how's his singing? He's not likely to take Broadway by storm anytime soon, but its more than passable. The same goes for most of the cast, who are all better actors than they are singers, but in this context it works. Sondheim's score, re-orchestrated here to make it more lush and full, is still just as engaging and complex as it's always been. Sondheim purists beware, though: a few nips, tucks, and outright cuts were made to fit the long stage musical into a more manageable film version, and some are bound to be annoyed that there's a verse or a song missing here or there. But taken on its own, Todd is a rousing success. It's easily Burton's best film since Ed Wood, and one of Depp's best, most soulful performances. If you're iffy on musicals, don't let that scare you away: Burton sympathizes, and has made this musical with you firmly in mind.

Sweeney Todd is now playing at theaters all around the area.

(Via DCist.)