Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street [DVD]
Director : Tim Burton
Screenplay : John Logan (based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler; adaptation by Christopher Bond)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : 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), Ed Sanders (Toby)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has always been one of pop culture’s blackest curios, a beautifully wrought musical about the darkest of human impulses that nonetheless found mainstream appeal and swept the 1980 Tony Awards. Drawing on a character that has bounced around urban legends and penny dreadfuls since the 1800s, songmeister Stephen Sondheim married dark comedy and melodramatic pathos in spinning the musical story of an innocent barber named Benjamin Barker who seeks revenge under the name of Sweeney Todd after losing his family and 15 years of his life to wrongful imprisonment. Set in the soot-covered London back alleys of the mid-19th century, Sweeney Todd revels in darkness--both literal and figurative--and asks the audience to find respite in morbidly clever lyrics and black humor involving corpses, cannibalism, and throat slittings (half of the audience, meek souls indeed, supposedly headed for the exits during its opening night on Broadway).
Bringing such material to the screen is certainly a tricky endeavor, and plopping it down right in the middle of the Christmas season is such a delightfully morbid maneuver for a major studio that it’s hard to resist celebrating the film simply for its release date. In this regard, it’s hard to imagine another filmmaker besides Tim Burton tackling such an adaptation; with his affinity for outsiders, dark visual sensibilities, and previous success with wedding his nightmarish outré visions with mainstream appeal, he was perhaps the only real choice. While Burton has never directed a live-action musical before, this inexperience is actually a plus because making Sweeney Todd work onscreen is more about mood and visuals than it is about choreography and precision of singing. Burton took the risk of casting primarily for actors, not singers, and it paid off because the characters pop off the screen as more than cartoonish ghouls with glorious voices. There is real anguish and pathos and melodrama, and if the voices aren’t always at the level one might expect, their very roughness reflects the violence and torment of the material much better than perfectly sustained notes would.
As Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp once again disappears into his character, but this time he brings with him a burning intensity that is unmatched by any of his performances. When we first meet Sweeney, he is sailing back to London after 15 years in the Australian penal colonies, and his eyes (both the dark circles underneath them and the angry glint within them) tell us that he has already been consumed by his personal tragedy. He is hellbent on revenge, and he immediately returns to the house where he once lived happily with his beautiful wife (Laura Michelle Kelly) and infant daughter. In brightly saturated flashbacks (virtually the only time in the film when we have genuine color outside of grays and red), we discover that Sweeney’s life was stolen away from him by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who coveted his wife and had him sent away under false charges. Sweeney discovers that his wife has since poisoned herself, and with the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the disheveled proprietor of a bakeshop downstairs that produces “the worst pies in London,” he sets about enacting his revenge by re-establishing his barber shop and waiting for Judge Turpin to sit in his chair so he can slit his throat.
Working from a screenplay by John Logan (The Aviator), Burton spends the first half of the film focused on the emotional core of the material--the seething bitterness of Sweeney’s loss and his hyper-focused vengeance. There are a few hiccups along the way, particularly in the form of a competitive Italian barber named Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), who threatens to unveil Sweeney’s true identity. Once Sweeney gets Judge Turpin in his chair and then misses the opportunity to do him in, the story takes an immediate nose dive into much darker territory, with Sweeney losing his mind and turning his razor’s edge against virtually anyone who makes the mistake of darkening his doorstep. His focused vengeance turns into a mad killing spree, with Mrs. Lovett aiding in the disposal of the bodies by hacking them up and baking them into her suddenly popular meat pies. The grotesque irony of London’s population unknowingly embracing the taste of human flesh is just one of Sweeney Todd’s nastier delights, and Burton unleashes the film’s full Grand Guignol debauchery in its second half, drawing on musty memories of old Hammer horror films to escalate the story of revenge into full-on horrorshow tragedy. Burton doesn’t hold back on the spurting arteries, allowing all those slit throats to spray forth with melted Crayola gore as if they were visualizations of Sweeney Todd’s personal demons breaking free. It may be too much for some, but for those who can appreciate the tastefully tasteless, it’s a feverish jolt to the senses to see such beautiful music and pathos paired with such horrid images.
And that’s precisely where Sweeney Todd’s unlikely success feels so bold. The film could have easily been a one-dimensional dime-story horror cartoon, but Burton never dismisses the emotional resonance of the material, and the actors plays their roles with the kind of heady abandon that draws you into their dilemmas. Ridiculous as it sounds, you understand why Sweeney is slicing all those throats, and Depp’s growly pop vocals are the stuff of true torment. As Mrs. Lovett, Helena Bonham Carter brings a richly pathetic vibe to the twisted character, and while her voice is certainly the thinnest, it never detracts from the intensity. A subplot involving a young man named Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) wooing Sweeney’s now-teenage daughter Joanna (Jayne Wisener), who has become the ward of Judge Turpin, never quite catches fire, but even that isn’t enough to diminish Sweeney Todd’s goosebump-inducing mixture of horror and high tragedy.
|Sweeey Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street 2-Disc Special Edition DVD|
|Sweeney Todd is also available in a single-disc edition (SRP $29.98).|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish|
|Distributor||DreamWorks SKG Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||April 1, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Fans of the film have nothing to worry about in terms of the DVD’s presentation of this intensely visual film. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is gorgeous--sharp and well-detailed, it brings out all the nuances of the film’s powerful recreation of mid-19th-century London even though the image is extremely dark. Granted, most of that was done using digital effects, so the film has a slightly digitized look to it, but that is inherent the material. As far as colors go, the film is desaturated to the point of being very nearly monochromatic, until the blood starts flowing (and spurting, and spraying, and splattering), which is rendered in various shades of red, some of which purposefully looks like melted crayons. There are a few sequences that are done in bright, strong colors, and they look quite good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is excellent, enveloping us in the Sondheim’s music. As Sondheim notes in one of the featurettes on the second disc, Sweeney Todd was written with the intention of having nearly constant music with very little silence, so the soundtrack is extremely active.|
| Those interested in the film’s production have two general making-of featurettes to choose from: On the first disc is “Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd,” a 26-minute featurette, while the second disc has “The Making of Sweeney Todd,” a 24-minute featurette, both of which feature interviews with cast and crew and lots of behind-the-scenes footage. The second disc also contains 20 minutes of footage from a sometimes hilarious press conference for the film in November 2007 featuring director Tim Burton and stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, and Timothy Spall. You can get more of Depp and Burton in a 12-minute episode of Moviefone Unscripted in which they answer sent-in questions from fans. “Musical Mayhem: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd” (12 min.) is essentially an extended interview with the composer in which he recounts how he came to write the original musical and his views on Burton’s film version (he sternly defends the cuts made to the stage version). A couple of other shorter featurettes focus on specific aspects of the production: “Design for a Demon Barber” (9 min.) looks at the costume design while “A Bloody Business” gives us a graphic inside look at the film’s gory prosthetic effects. Meanwhile, for the life of me I can’t figure out what is the point of “The Razor’s Refrain,” which is simply a 9-minute medley of the major songs set to production stills and behind-the-scenes images. |
Even more interesting, in my opinion, are the supplements dealing the history behind the legend of Sweeney Todd. “Sweeney Todd is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber” is a fascinating 20-minute featurette that puts the Sweeney’s legend in the historical and cultural context of the “penny dreadfuls” and gory journalism of 19th-century London. A number of scholars and experts discuss the origins of the story in truth and fiction, which is illustrated by all kinds of great period wood carvings and magazine covers, as well as clips from the 1936 film version of the legend starring Tod Slaughter. The 16-minute featurette “Sweeney’s London” explains just what a noxious place the great city was 200 to 300 years ago and also shows us the actual locations where Sweeney supposedly lived and worked. “Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition” is another intriguing 20-minute featurette, this one focusing on the infamous French horror theater that helped inspire the musical’s look and tone. A number of experts are interviewed, including Mel Gordon, who has written one of the only English-language books on the subject. The two-disc set is rounded out with a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer.
Copyright © 2008 James Kendrick
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