Sweeney Todd: A musical done right

Thursday, December 27, 2007

I rarely enjoy horror films.

And it can be said I dislike musicals.

Combining the two should therefore double the "just shoot me" factor. "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," however, is quite good. In fact I consider it the best real musical in a very long time.

By "real," I mean it's clear the film's dramatic source is the music -- which allows the music and drama to intermingle -- and disallows the dramatic action to come to a screeching halt in order for the characters to leap into song. The music's opening measures, laid over the ghoulish credit sequence, overpower your senses and leave you no doubt that this is a musical in its fullest form. It seems to say that if you'll sit back and let go for two hours, you just might enjoy yourself.

The film opens with Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp) coming into London after having spent 15 years in an Australian prison. It turns out he has escaped, taken the false name of Sweeney Todd, and is intent on killing Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) -- the man who sent Todd away so many years ago under false charges so he could make off with the young barber's beautiful wife and daughter.

Back in his old room above Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pie restaurant, Sweeney Todd sets himself up once again as a barber with the hopes of attracting the judge -- where he will use his trusty razor to slit his throat. When a competing barber who knows of Sweeney Todd's past threatens blackmail, Todd kills him in a rage. Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who is in love with her boarder, offers help in disposing of the body by devising a grisly scheme: Sweeney Todd can practice murder while Mrs. Lovett can use the bodies to "spice up" her meat pies.

It's a deal. Let the bloody mayhem ensue ...

Most likely the musical theater fans are rolling their eyes at my babble, but, as is often the case, movie reviews are read by two types of people: people who are wondering if they should take the time this weekend to see a flick, and by people who are wondering if the reviewer knows what he or she is talking about and "got it right."

Hopefully musical fans will think I got it right. The combination of the two forms flipped on their respective heads -- ghastly horror scenes performed in grand dramatic song, and grand dramatic song performed while blood hemorrhages over the entire set -- had an interesting effect on me; I sat back, let it go and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

The film is more or less Stephen Sondheim's stage play brought straight to film -- the director, Tim Burton, seemed satisfied to keep all the action in and around Sweeney Todd's barber shop, with very few forays outside the neighboring streets. Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman, all nonsingers (thank heavens) did a wonderful job with the songs -- instead of great singers trying to act, they were great actors who knew how the characters should sing.

Good stuff, as they say.

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