Tuesday, January 29, 2008


“For what’s the sound of the world out there?”
“What, Mr. Todd? What, Mr. Todd? What is that sound?”
“Those crunching noises pervading the air!”
“Yes, Mr. Todd! Yes, Mr. Todd! Yes, all around!”
“It’s man devouring man, my dear!”
“And who are we to deny it in here?”
-- “A Little Priest”

It’s odd that for a master of mainstream macabre, the film that turns out to be Tim Burton’s darkest and bloodiest, is a musical. That’s rated R.

Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is yet another triumph for the 49-year old director who made a name for himself with his Gothic (and highly visual) romanticism for all things shadowy and decayed.
It’s his sixth collaboration with his cinematic alter-ego, Johnny Depp, and his fifth with his lady love, Helena Bonham Carter, both of whom acquit themselves admirably as the obsessed, single-minded barber out for revenge, and Mrs. Lovett, owner of a decrepit meat pie shop and adorer of all things Todd.
And not only do they have to act, Depp and Bonham Carter (and the rest of the film’s delectable cast) have to sing too. And these musical numbers sound tricky, in all probability a challenge to professionals, and certainly not a cake walk for untrained vocal chords. But they pull it off with skill and talent to spare.

Burton meanwhile, paints the multiplex canvas with yet another darkly gorgeous portrait of the outsider coming up against “normal” society, though admittedly, it’s been awhile since said outsider was homicidal (the last time we had one of those from Burton was Batman Returns).
The director’s assembled band of creative cohorts are, as always, impeccable. Colleen Atwood’s costumes (BAFTA and Oscar nominations; her 7th collaboration with Burton), Dante Ferretti’s production design (Oscar nomination), Dariusz Wolski‘s camerawork (Wolski also shot Alex Proyas’ The Crow and Dark City), all bolster performances by an excellent cast that includes Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Timothy Spall, giving us a film that not only moves, but looks good while doing it.

Having never been exposed to Sweeney Todd in any of its previous incarnations before, what came as perhaps the biggest surprise for me, was the music. By turns sweeping, infectious, sobering, and chilling, Sondheim’s musical landscape for this tale of tragic tale of obsession and revenge, is astounding.
Consider: one of the musical’s cheeriest numbers is entitled “The Worst Pies In London.” No mean feat, that. Then, to have that triumph and the audacious cannibal anthem, “A Little Priest,” all in one musical. Sheer bloody genius!
Getting Burton as appointed cinematic translator was a match made in Grand Guignol Heaven. When you can expertly juxtapose a beautiful number like “Johanna” with shots of throat-slitting and body dumping, well, surely you understand the material, right? (The pastoral idyll of “By The Sea”—in the midst of the pervasive ash grey palette of the film—was another masterstroke as well.)

With Sweeney Todd, Once, and Across The Universe (Julie Taymor’s Beatles-inspired work may be uneven, but no one can deny its daring), 2007 should go down in cinema history as the year the movie musical proved it could be so much more than just fat-suited A-listers in drag.
It no longer has to be just about people busting out into boisterous song and energetic, jazz hands-inflected dance. Like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge before them, these musicals obliterate the common perception of the genre.
With Sweeney Todd, Burton and Sondheim give testament to the fact that you can have blood and cannibalism—with the R rating to go along with all that wholesome family entertainment—and still have an emotionally involving narrative that utilizes the grammar of brilliant songwriting as its alluring language.
And let’s face it, if asked which was the more disturbing thought, Johnny Depp as a fright-haired, murderous barber, or John Travolta in drag and a fat suit, I know what my answer would be.
What about you?

“We’ll take the customers that we can get!”
“High-born and low, my love!”
“We’ll not discriminate great from small! No, we’ll serve anyone, meaning anyone…”
“And to anyone at all!”
-- “A Little Priest”

Parting shot: After Javier Bardem’s killer ‘cut in No Country For Old Men, Sacha Baron Cohen’s coif as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, takes runner-up as Dodgiest Cinematic ‘Do for 2007.

Parting shot 2: Reviews of Once, Across The Universe, and No Country For Old Men can be found in the Archive, along with a Tim Burton retrospective (“In The Shadows of Mainstream Cinema”).

(Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street OS courtesy of impawards.com; images courtesy of bloody-disgusting.com.)

(Thanx to Bianca, for springing for the ticket.)

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