THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
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A SIERRA NEVADA
(MICHAEL MADSEN & JOHN SAVAGE).
Horror Thriller tales and musicals don't quite go together. Not that folks haven't tried. From ROCKY HORROR SHOW (which begat the movie THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) to the latest DVD release of DR. JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE: THE ROCK & ROLL MUSICAL to an immense variety of Vampire musicals. For every PHANTOM OF THE OPERA success, there is a FRANKENSTEIN: THE MUSICAL and LESTAT disaster.
SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET, had enjoyed over 100 years of success on stage and when Stephen Somdheim turned it into a musical in 1979 it never stopped running. Stephen Sondheim is often credited with the musical version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but he wrote the music and lyrics, having his partner, Hugh Wheeler, write the rest of the story and it was all based upon the 1973 play by Christopher Bond, who re-made the vicious psychopath into a tragic figure. The original Sweeney cut throats in his barber chair only for their money or possessions or just because he liked to kill.
It's always a daunting task to pick the right people for the job of acting out a play brought to screen. But despite the many people who vied for the role of Sweeney, Tim insisted upon long-time collaborator, Johnny Depp - despite the fact that he didn't even know if Johnny could sing. Many an actress wanted the role of Mrs. Lovett, the pie maker, even Annette Benning and Toni Collette, but despite all of that, Tim gave it to the woman he sleeps with - even if she did need extensive vocal lessons to play the part.
In essence, Tim turned away everyone excpet who he wanted - damn the consequences. Well, he's the director and he'll have to face those consequences, so why not?
For those of you unaware of the tale, A ship comes up the river Thames (pronounced Tems). The singing begins abruptly with a young man, named Anthony (Jaimie Campbell Bower). Anthony sings the virtues of this cruddy sooty-aired place called London. Clearly there is no place like home for some folks. Then for the second verse, up steps Sweeney Todd (Johnny Depp: A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, FREDDY'S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE, THE NINTH GATE, THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE, SLEEPY HOLLOW, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN [all], THE CORPSE BRIDE). Sweeney has his own opinion of London and makes it clear that he is at polar opposites in this regard from the young man he has befriended on this voyage. Sweeney has been away at prison in Australia for lo these past fifteen years - and would still be there had he not escaped and young Anthony saved him from the sea. Sweeney owes Anthony a favor and bids him to visit sometime on Fleet Street, where Sweeney expects to return to the life he once had, as a Barber.
Of course, there is far more on Sweeney's mind that cutting hair and shaving faces. Sweeney has murder on his mind.
We discover in song that once upon a time, a naive young Barber had a beautiful wife named Lucy and lovely young child named Joanna. But his wife was so lovely that a local corrupt judge decided that he would have the beauty for himself and convicted the Barber on trumped up charges. Sweeney has returned and by hook or crook he will get his wife and child back. He meets up with Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter: Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, PLANET OF THE APES , WALLACE AND GROMIT IN THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT, CORPSE BRIDE, HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX), the lady baker who rented him his old Barber shope upstairs. She fails to recognize him at first and bids him to try one of her meat pies - the worst in all the land. Sweeney asks if the upstairs room is still available, as he would like to set up shop there - as a Barber. Though the years have not been kind to him, Mrs. Lovett then realizes that this man, who calls himself Sweeney Todd, is in reality a man named... but hush! For the corrupt judge Turpin (Alan Rickman: DOGMA, HARRY POTTER [all]) and his vile henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall: GOTHIC, HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, LEMONY SNICKETT'S: A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE) still live and so only Sweeney is here. Mrs. Lovett has bad news for Sweeney, however. Evil Judge Turpin, unable to seduce the heartbroken Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly: MARPLE: NEMESIS [TV]), raped her instead, had her thrown into the local insane asylum where, according to Mrs. Lovett, she died.
Sweeney overcome with rage and heartache, is staggered by the news.
Meanwhile, young Anthony happens past the house of one Judge Turpin when he hears the lovely, longing song of a young girl sitting by the window. She is encaged in the home as much as her own pet bird is trapped within its cage, and sings a song of love and yearning. Smitten, Anthony wants to free her from her cage, but his gazing does not go unnoticed, and Judge Turpin captures the young man, has him beaten, and threatens him with far worse should the boy ever return. But even as he is leaving, bleeding, he vows in private to return and steal the lovely Joanna.
Anthony finds Sweeney and tells him of his misadventure. Sweeney, hearing that his daughter may yet be saved, hatches a plot to establish himself on Fleet Street. He'll challenge the top Barber to a shaving duel.
Fortune is with Sweeney as it turns out that the newest Barber sensation is an Italian dandy named Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) who is more hype than substance. Luck favors Sweeney even more when none other than Turpin's henchman, Beadle is oozing through the crowd, passing his filthy fingers across the faces of the young girls he passes. Sweeney quickly calls out and flatters Beadle by asking him to judge the contest. Sweeney wins of course, for as Todd says, when a razor is in his hand "My arm is complete". With the win comes the reputation and all the chess pieces are in place. The game now begins.
Naturally, the individual desires of each and every character come into conflict with the rest and so a story unwinds as people are done, undone, and become unwitting pawns or players in a game that Sweeney can barely control. But Turpin has his own game, as does Beadle, Anthony, Mrs. Lovett, and even the dandy Barber, Pirelli.
While Depp plays Sweeney as a tragic villian, Bonham-Carter plays Mrs. Lovett as pure evil. Mrs. Lovett has no loss or trauma that has twisted her psyche, she just has her desires and there is nothing she won't do to achieve them. Though she dreams of the normal things in life: A cottage by the sea and a family, director Burton reveals in fantasy sequences the depths of her denial as the real world of the brooding and barely contained Sweeney, as well as the damaged young boy Mrs. Lovett takes in, can't possibly fit into the happy bright landscape she imagines. Mrs. Lovett has allowed her home and life to be both catalyst and nursery for a ticking timebomb that can never be diffused and the only question is 'How many people will die from the explosion?'
Yes, this is a complex tale that Christopher Bond hatched, and Sondheim and Wheeler set to music. Even more difficult was the fact that, as a movie, Burton had to cut out or at least trim much of the songs and scenes so that it could properly translate to film.
So how did Burton do? With a screenplay by John Logan (BATS, STAR TREK: NEMESIS), miracle of miracles, the movie actually works. What's more, Tim Burton was fully committed to the Horror. While a Horror movie doesn't require gore, Tim still delivers in buckets, which is only befitting a tale of a Barber who cuts throats and his landlady who butchers and bakes the victims into meat pies.
Everybody brought their A-game to this movie! SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET is a great ride and the music isn't wince-worthy even from the perspective of a Horror Thriller fan who doesn't particuarly like musicals. Regardless of how this may perform at the box office - and I can think of a lot of Horror Thriller fans who won't go simply because it is a musical - Tim Burton was the best choice for the movie and every actor was the best choice for their role.
That said, I've got to be completely honest and say that, as much as I enjoyed it from a Horror Thriller standpoint, it is a musical with very stagey numbers.
What's more, I never once felt that the outdoor scenes felt truly outside at all. The entire movie appeared to have a "staged" presence. That may have been Tim Burton's desire and in that regard, Job Well Done! But this is film and it gave a feeling of artifice to the whole thing. As if there was a wink and nod that none of this was real and not to get too worked up over the lives that would be lost. It's just acting.* So it would take a more well-rounded fan of Horror Thrillers and stage production Musicals than I, to give SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET the rating it probably deserves. But I still give it Four Shriek Girls.
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