Sweeney Todd

    When the rumors about a Tim Burton directed movie of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Sweeney Todd arose a few years ago, I imagine every geek in the world thought, “Oh, that’s so cool!” It’s rare when the match between director and project is so perfect. Burton’s obsession with the dark side combined with his macabre visual sense makes him really the only director for a musical about a serial killer.
    I had some doubts, however. For one thing, I knew he would cast Johnny Depp as the lead.  Now no one admires Johnny Depp’s acting more than I, but can he sing? I also had similar concerns about the rest of the cast. Burton has a group of actors that he likes to work with just like any other director, and none of them are known for their singing. Now I realize that film is a much more intimate medium than the stage and that maybe you don’t want a traditional Broadway belter hamming it up two feet from the camera, but when you cast a current Hollywood star or one of your favorites in a role, you’re taking a chance that they may not be able to carry a tune. Still Sondheim had final say over the casting and he approved Depp, unheard. So what do I know?
    For those who don’t know, Sweeney Todd is about a barber named Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) who is married to a beautiful woman, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly). They have an infant daughter. The powerful and corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) takes an interest in Lucy and has Barker exiled to Australia, clearing the path to his wife. When his efforts at seduction fail, he rapes her. Then he adopts the daughter.
    Fifteen years later, Barker works his way back to London, changes his name to Sweeney Todd and rents his old shop over Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) meat pie shop. Mrs. Lovett has fallen on hard times because meat is scarce and expensive. She recognizes Todd from before and fills him in on what has happened to his family.
   Sweeney sharpens he razors and waits for the judge to occupy his barber chair. But when the opportunity comes, Turpin escapes, vowing never to return. At this point Sweeney goes off the deep end, slitting the throat of every customer that comes into the shop. As an added bonus, he solves Mrs. Lovett’s supply problems.
    You see: the perfect Tim Burton film!
    Sondheim’s faith in Depp’s vocal abilities are, for the most part, well placed. He’s on key most of the time. The acting part is up to his usual standards. Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t quite capture Mrs. Lovett in my view. You don’t really see her tender feelings for Sweeney and there’s no underlying savagery that would make her last actions believable. The biggest disappointment is surprisingly Alan Rickman. His singing voice is weak and and not even in the same neighborhood as the proper key. This is where the filmmakers need to throw out their principles and hire a real singer to come in and dub the singing part. Not that Rickman’s acting performance was a stretch either. I’d call it Snape with stubble. Nobody does that better than Rickman, but it is a shame that such a talented actor isn’t given a wider variety of  roles.
    However, in spite of these quibbles, you have to see this film. Unsurprisingly, it is a visually stunning work. The sets, costumes, make up, everything make up for the shortcomings mentioned above. Sondheim’s plot is passionate if not cathartic and most of the  performances are terrific. And while nothing could live up to a decade of anticipation, this version of the story will do.


1 Response to “Sweeney Todd”

  1. 1 theotherebert July 17, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Where on Earth did you get that idea? First of all it is standard practice in movie musicals to record the songs in a recording studio and then lip sync them when filming the visuals, so takes would not be discarded because of the singing. Plus since the scandals that arose in the sixties because of the great Marni Nixon dubbing the songs for Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audry Hepburn in My Fair Lady, it has been routine for stars in musicals to sing their own songs, often with disastrous results. I’ve never understood why you would want that one important aspect of your film to be so weak and yet that’s the way it is. My first choice would be to cast people who can handle the singing, acting and dancing but barring that, why not have a professional singer dub the songs? Where is the shame in admitting that you can’t sing at a professional level? Most people can’t. Also in this day and age why not use the Auto Tune software? If Johnny Depp can get close to being in tune, I have no objection to giving him a little help getting the rest of the way. Real professional singers use it, which they shouldn’t. If you can’t sing in tune naturally, you have no business being a professional singer. But an actor, especially a great one like Depp, who was so excellent otherwise, there should be no stigma attached to not being able to sing. I’ve never understood this.

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