Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Helena Bohnam Carter, and a 1970’s Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim about a barber with a penchant for truly close, and rather bloody, shaves. With these kinds of ingredients you have a can’t miss recipe for Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street. The finished product is a wickedly clever and most unusual movie experience. Tim Burton’s style blends so seamlessly with the dark humor of the original production. If I had any reservations going into the film it was the casting of Burton’s go to actors Depp and Carter. I had no doubt that either of them could pull off the roles. Depp particularly has become one of the finest actors of our time. His ability to own a part so completely never ceases to amaze me. I was more worried about the rather heavy singing load that the film required. Imagine my surprise to find that Depp was not only up to the task of providing the musical voice of Sweeney Todd, but he managed it with a remarkable amount of skill. His performance provided unexpected vocal nuance to the musical numbers, none of which are particularly easy melodies to sing. To a lesser extent Carter was also quite good in her singing performances. The Sondheim songs take on new life in the hands of Burton. His depiction of London in gothic splendor is vintage Burton. The foggy darkness of the night surrounds a cityscape utterly gritty and atmospheric. There is an almost Charles Dickens reality to the entire film that creates just enough believability to allow the artistic license that is so identified with Burton to become a wonderful playground for a talented group of performers.
Sweeney Todd (Depp) arrives in London a rather dark and moody character. Once ashore, he knows exactly where he wishes to go. It’s Mrs. Lovett’s (Carter) Meat Pie Shoppe, where he once rented the flat over the store. In musical flashback we learn that he once lived there with his wife and child as a successful barber. We get snippets of an idealistic life that was interrupted when Judge Turpin (Rickman) took a fancy to his wife. The Judge had Todd, then known as Benjamin Barker, banished from London. He molested the wife and took their young daughter for his ward. Now with a new name and 20 years of age to conceal his identity, Barker/Todd has returned to have his revenge. Along the way Mrs. Lovett, known for the self-proclaimed “worst meat pies in London”, has found a way to capitalize on Todd’s murderous rampages. Londoners develop quite a taste for her new pie recipe which contains a secret ingredient, soylent green, eh… people.
Seldom does a production so dependent on style deliver in so many other areas of production. Sweeney Todd is perhaps Burton’s finest effort to date. The atmosphere is so appropriate to the Sondheim themes that we are effortlessly drawn in before the first word is ever spoken or sung. Johnny Depp has again proven his chameleon talents and inhabits not only the makeup and costume of Todd, he provides the character with a soul. Alan Rickman does a wonderful job as Judge Turpin, delivering a character not unlike his Harry Potter role of Professor Snape. Timothy Spall plays Bamford, very much a Tim Burton character with odd body proportions and a sinister countenance. He is the henchman of the Judge, and we just can’t wait for him to finally get his shave. He’s another hark back to Dickens, reminding us perhaps of Uriah Heep or Fagan. There is a love story playing out amidst the A story as Todd’s shipmate, Anthony (Bower) has developed an attraction to Todd’s daughter Joanna (Wisener) It is during these moments that the film loses its way somewhat. The “Joanna” song is overused and never really fits into the Burton environment. Obviously part of the original story and intended to break up the dark humor a bit, the love story is overplayed.
The film manages to maintain its dark humor even though many of the themes are absolutely horrific in nature. Burton can’t help but to allow us to linger on some of the slashings. He appears to take devilish satisfaction as the local Londoners eat heartily of their fellow men, and women. Throughout all of these nightmarish images it is Burton’s wit that keeps us just on that edge so that we are not too strongly repulsed by what is going on in the film. The songs are far from pop fare, and it’s not likely the type of musical you’ll leave humming a few happy tunes. They are effective and blend into the atmosphere, so that they stop standing out at all before so very long.
Sweeney Todd is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is an incredibly dark picture. If ever black levels needed to be strong, this is the film. Fortunately the image is clean and contains razor sharp detail evident in these deep black levels. Shadow definition is about as good as a standard definition image is likely to be. The bloodletting offers us the most dynamic contrast possible. The blood is incredibly vivid and the deep red stands out in stark contrast to the near colorless environment of the film. The true tradgedy is the appearance of some compression artifacts that give the film an unflattering shimmer from time to time, particularly around the edges.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation is quite impressive. The orchestrations stand out with more dynamic range than the visuals might suggest. The vocals are remarkably clear and very easy to pick out. The surrounds are used to good effect here, adding greatly to the stylish Burton atmosphere.
This 2-disc release of Sweeney Todd offers the film and one feature on the first disc with all of the rest of the extras on disc 2.
Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd: This is the only disc 1 extra and is a 25 minute behind the scenes look at the film’s production. As you might expect, the piece concentrates mostly on Depp, Carter, and Burton.There’s plenty of green screen use, and you even get to check out the recording sessions for the songs.
Sweeney Todd Press Conference: Depp, Burton, Rickman, Carter, Spall, and Richard Zanuck laugh it up for an audience promoting the release of the film. They field questions with usually witty responses and are obviously having a grand time.
Sweeney Todd Is Alive – The Real Barber Of Fleet Street: Was there or wasn’t there a real Sweeney Todd? A few folks offer theories, but there’s no real evidence that Todd ever in fact existed. You do get the idea that there might have been a serial killer who did indeed inspire the original tales.
Musical Mayhem – Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: Sondheim talks about the original production and how he approached the film. This is a good piece if you’re looking at how the production might have been altered these 30 years later for the movie.
Sweeney’s London: So what was London really like during the Industrial Revolution? Fans of Charles Dickens recognize the place and time quite well indeed. This short piece offers drawings and historical descriptions to paint a realistic picture of that period.
Grand Guignol – A Theatrical Tradition: A look at the famed French horror theatre that was obviously an important influence on both Sondheim and Burton.
The Making Of Sweeney Todd: A lot of this material was already covered, so there is very little new to be found. It looks and sounds more like a promo fluff piece than anything else. It does run almost 24 minutes, making it one of the longer features to be found here.
Designs For A Demon Barber: The stylish look is the topic of the almost 9 minute feature. Colleen Atwood and Dante Ferretti are responsible for much of the period costumes and look for a few Burton films, and this feature brings them to the fore for a well deserved bow.
Bloody Business: Did I mention there’s a lot of blood in this film? This is how they accomplished the slashing scenes, complete with buckets of blood and special makeup f/x.
Moviefone Unscripted With Tim Burton and Johnny Depp: At 11 minutes I could have watched far more of this. It appears Moviefone offered an internet chat with the pair, allowing folks to ask questions, many a bit off the wall. The pair does a great job of answering and providing some “unscripted” fun at the same time.
The Razor’s Refrain: Basically a slide show of stills.
A Trailer and Photo Gallery round out an impressive list of extras.
I never saw the Sondheim Broadway production, but I can’t imagine it contained anything remotely close to the visuals of the Burton film. To be fair, there’s so much less ability to do so on a stage, and certainly technology has improved dramatically in almost 30 years. But what I’m really talking about here has more to do with style and creativity than CG f/x or cinematic trickery. It doesn’t matter how familiar you might be with the tale in any of its incarnations from opera to novel. This film is one of those truly unique experiences that you won’t likely soon forget. It crosses so many genres that it should have something for nearly everyone. I had one friend who was reluctant to see the film because he perceived it as a slasher film. Certainly it is bloody, as we’ve already covered, but I still wouldn’t call it a slasher film. There’s almost constant singing and music, but this is far from a standard musical. I find myself unwilling, or unable, to describe exactly what kind of a film Sweeney Todd actually is. Some of you will understand when I say it’s a Tim Burton film. For the rest of you, “I can promise the closest shave you’ll ever know.”