Friday, December 21, 2007

Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd

For the legion of hardcore fans of composer Stephen, the wait for the film version of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has been excruciatingly long. There have been precious few true Sondheim musicals that have made the transfer to the screen and this grand guignol piece has been a long time in coming. Earlier this decade Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Jarhead) was to direct and numerous names were bandied about for the infamous roles of the demon barber and his accomplice Mrs. Lovett. The wait for the film version has also been more than a little frightening (who would direct? Who would star? Who could possibly due it justice?) as perhaps befits the horrific tale of a man who slits multiple throats in gory unfocused vengeance and the woman who bakes the bodies into meat pies to dispose of the evidence.

Once Tim Burton took over the reigns, auditions continued for reasons unbeknownst to many who found it impossibly obvious (in retrospect) which way the casting would go. The famously whimsical and gothic-loving auteur settled on the two actors he always settles on: Sweeney would inhabited by Johnny Depp (his six-time leading man and friend) and Mrs Lovett would be played by Helena Bonham-Carter (his five-time co-star and lady love). That neither could sing didn’t seem to worry the director though it worried Sondheim disciples not a little.

"The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," the glorious choral number that opens the original stage show foreshadows the narrative while painting a rather thrilling shrieking picture of the man in question (Sondheim has acknowledged the influence of Bernard Hermann, of Psycho fame, on his most acclaimed score). Burton’s first move is to slash "The Ballad" from the film version (it’s the cut that will be most obvious to Todd fanatics) in favor of a slower reveal of this bloody man through expository dialogue, general close up visualization --you can't get that on stage -- and sung through flashbacks, perhaps to surprise the uninitiated. To quote the tale end of the original number
What happened then, well that’s the play,
and he wouldn’t want us to give it away…

Not Sweeney
Not Sweeney Todd
The demon barber of Fleet
Street
Thankfully the number remains in spirit and is used admirably well in the underscoring. Though it’s my personal favorite song in the show I found that I hadn’t really missed it once the tale was told.

Read my full review @ Zoom In

Have you seen the movie?
I'd love to hear whether it met your expectations as well.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

I caught a midnight showing at my local multiplex.

I was very impressed by the film, despite being a fan of the George Hearn-Angela Lansbury television broadcast. More than anything, I liked Burton's contemplation of Victorian culture throughout the film: the shot of the opium den, the poor conditions of children through the character of Toby, the prostitutes on street corners. The production was great eye candy as well and I loved the "By The Sea" fantasy sequence. Colleen Atwood did lots of nice things with costumes, too.

As for the actors, I was more impressed with Helena Bonham Carter than Johnny Depp. It's clear that she struggled quite a bit through some numbers, but breathy and sweet timbre won me over. (Watching the movie made me even more upset at the state of this year's Best Actress race. I think she should definately be in the running, not Cate Blanchett.) I liked Johnny, but I felt his characterization of Sweeney was less deep and less textured than what Helena gave to Mrs. Lovett. All in all, I'll be seeing this one again!

- Adam

NATHANIEL R said...

yeah it's a shame about her singing because she looks so great in the role. an entirely new mrs. lovett but fine for the film. she's always looked kind of like a little doll so all grown up and like this decaying doll was quite something visually

Kamikaze Camel said...

I have to wait until January 24. *grumblegrumble*

adam k. said...

It really is a shame about the singing, because it seems like something that could have been solved without much effort. I haven't seen the film yet, but it just seems to me like actors with decent voices should be able to train past range limitations, or whathaveyou. Burton should've known the difference between good and bad singing and not laid anything down until they were doing good singing.

OR they could've been dubbed if there were serious problems. This seems like a particularly hard musical to make work with dubbing, but it's still preferable to noticeably troubled singing. I dunno.

adam k. said...

OK "without much effort" is bad phrasing. It WOULD have taken some effort, that's just the point, but I don't think it would've been impossible. That's what annoys me.

Alison Flynn said...

Adam, since the film is about 80-85% singing, dubbing would have been ridiculous. It's not like My Fair Lady, which is lots of dialogue with songs in between. There you can get away with dubbing.

If they dubbed Sweeney Todd, the actors would be lip-synching for almost the entire movie.

HBC did take voice lessons, but it probably wasn't long enough for her to really strengthen her voice and also for her to become more comfortable with singing. But I agree - I actually like her voice. It has a very sweet and pretty timbre.

StinkyLulu said...

My quick thoughts:

This is the only production that lives up to the "gran guignol" appellation. No morality tale alibi, just lurid gruesomeness and that's plenty.

I really really really liked it.

I admired the casting and thrilled with HBC about 80% of the time.

I really liked the beauteous cruelty HBC brought to the role, which really seemed to match with Depp in enthralling ways.

I too loved the approach to Toby.

Canadian Ken described the kid who plays Anthony this way: he "looks like a cross between Ashton Kutcher and Hilary Swank but he sings like an angel" -- which nails it for me.

I'm amazed at how Depp pushed the furious monstrosity yet retained my empathy. It's what I love about Depp in all of his best performances ("he's a freak but I sorta really like him") and I'm really impressed that they brought his gifts so well to bear in this incredibly challenging role.

And those orchestrations: wow.

KEVIN M. said...

I wish I could say my experience had been as positive. My expectations had been pretty low, and the film wasn't near as dismal as I expected, but Depp and HBC really seemed so ill-suited to the genre. I mean, Depp has a few more notes than she has, but he doesn't know what to do with them, and she has UNCOMMON timing (really impressive), but she can't sing to save her frickin' life. (Or to save her frickin' husband's movie.) Great scenework, but the songs- for me- were really flat. Also, I felt a distinct lack of chemistry between Depp and HBC, which I think it odd given their offscreen friendship. The depressing staging of "A Little Priest" didn't help matters, either. I thought the support cast- Sasha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, and the wonderful young actor playing Toby- came off far better than our more noted leads.

adam k. said...

I guess I sorta half took back the suggestion about dubbing at the end, cause it's true, it wouldn't have made sense. But I do think they should've trained harder if the singing was that bad. I mean, you either have the notes or you don't. You may not be a brilliant singer, but if you have the notes, you have the notes.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing it... trying to figure out when.

Alison Flynn said...

I haven't seen it yet either, Adam. This is a crazy week, so I may have to wait until after the holidays to see it.

Most people aren't complaining too much about the singing, except to say that HBC's voice is breathy. The consensus seems to be that it's not perfect or virtuoso, but that it fits the scale of the film.

Alison Flynn said...

By the way, Nathaniel, I really enjoyed reading your review of this film. It was an indepth and beautifully written piece.

The comparison between HBC's and Depp's leeway to compensate for vocal shortcomings is interesting. Mrs. Lovett's music is trickier than Sweeney's, in my opinion, which gives HBC more of an obstacle. Not that Sweeney's music isn't extremely difficult by any means; but I think Lovett's is even moreso. And, as you've pointed out, she doesn't have the easier out of being able to shout like Depp.

They say that great works of art are always flexible, revealing themselves anew with each new rendering or point of view imposed...Sweeney Todd proves this point again...in every way it’s a Tim Burton film. But Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is still blessedly always the work of the greatest living musical theater composer, Stephen Sondheim.

That is my favorite paragraph of all. And the comparison of this magnificent work to Shakespeare is right on. I don't think any rendering or interpretation of Shakespeare could change what it is at its core. The same goes for Sweeney Todd.

Brooke Cloudbuster said...

I saw a preview screening of this film before I flew out and it broke what I thought was a impenetrable top ten this year. I'm a fan of the original musical, and I found this to be a good adaptation.

The voices of the singers weren't overly strong, but I'd much rather have actors that can sing at least competently than singers that can't act at all. Of course, a balance between the two would've be great; but I'm happy with how it turned out.

Personally; I felt Bonham-Carter was the stand out here, both in voice; which wasn't great but was pleasant, and in acting. I was expecting great things of her, but nowhere near as great as she did. It's amazing how she can deliver great performance after great performance; last year in Conversations With Other Women and this year in this. She managed to also break my Best Actress shortlist; knocking out Joan Chen.

I enjoyed Depp, but not as much as I did Carter. I loved Rickman in this role, but sadly, he's not getting any awards attention.

The rest of the film fares very well, too. Visually stunning and a great adaptation. One of the best of the year, in my book.

adam k. said...

I agree that Mrs. Lovett's music is much harder than Sweeney's. When I saw the show on Broadway last year, I didn't remember thinking Sweeney's songs were really that hard. A lot of them seemed to be duets or ensemble pieces, too. But yeah, Lovett's songs are a bitch.

Steven said...

I thought this was a wonderful adaptation of Sondheim's masterpiece. I enjoyed myself from start to finish. I'm usually a purist when it comes to musical adaptations, but the film was so spot-on in everything it was trying to accomplish that I couldn't even stop to think about any differences or cuts. I adored Helena Bonham Carter. She has created a whole new identity for this iconic role. It's so refreshing and completely valid. It really is a shame she's not getting more attention than she should. Overall, the film is very well done. It's probably my favorite of the year, although I am biased since I'm a huge fan of the musical. It should at least win the Golden Globe.

~Steven

E Dot said...

Which is a shame for Carter, because Lovett is the type of role that immediately leads to a Tony nomination (like Effie White), and should, in retrospect, translate to Oscar voters as well.

NATHANIEL R said...

well it's two problems really. Her into doesn't immediately grab you (the singing problem most pronounced in that scene) and intros are so crucial to already legendary characters and the second is that the Lovett role has been whittled down in the directorial/screenplay choices (notice that By The Sea is very brief compared to what it usually is)

Jimmy said...

i saw it about 2 weeks ago & loved it. ditto a few people back....as i was reading your review, I was thinking, wow, this guy is such a wonderful writer. i've read your review twice. i'm printing it up to give my 10th grade daughter & we'll read (and highlight) together. Merry! Peace '08.

Anonymous said...

" "They say that great works of art are always flexible, revealing themselves anew with each new rendering or point of view imposed...Sweeney Todd proves this point again...in every way it’s a Tim Burton film. But Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is still blessedly always the work of the greatest living musical theater composer, Stephen Sondheim."

That is my favorite paragraph of all. And the comparison of this magnificent work to Shakespeare is right on. I don't think any rendering or interpretation of Shakespeare could change what it is at its core. The same goes for Sweeney Todd."

I agree with Alison all the way on that. You said the other day Nat something about "great film writing" in reference to Acidemic's essay on Last Tango in Paris. I think the same could be said of your review for Todd. I don't know whether I'll see it on the big screen or not (*confession - onscreen blood and gore is a huge turnoff for me*) but it doesn't matter - the pleasures of reading your essay were tremendous. (Especially that last paragraph of it.)

I'm wondering when YOU are going to get a book of film essays published, and why the heck people quote David Thomson when they should be quoting you, seriously.

RedSatinDoll

J.J. said...

It was incredibly unimaginative, and I'm convinced the only reason it's getting great reviews is because A) the material is so damn good itself, and B) it's not a total disaster. We should expect more than "not a total disaster." Won't take up further space here; thoughts are on my blog.

NATHANIEL R said...

well JJ i hope i implied as much to a small degree. I mean the source material is among the finest ever. So unless you make terrible terrible decisions, you're going to end up with at least a good product. I think it's more than good but do agree that its self-imposed handicaps prevent any "masterpiece" status it may be nabbing. It's weird to feel that the core is where the problem is (johnny & helena ... and not just for the singing --both have been far better in other things) but the whole thing someone rises above its central averageness.

I really think Burton did a fine job with this and I'm hoping that people will realize --a stretch for HOllywood I'm sure --that HAIRSPRAY, which casts only people who can sing and dance, is nearly as good as SWEENEY despite the source material being so obviously inferior.

musical talent goes a LONG way in musicals. duh.

maybe i'm erring on the side of relief but I liked it --and even if it's not quite the sweeney todd i was expecting, i think Burton pretty much got exactly what he was trying to get

Alison Flynn said...

Really, there isn't much from the stage that gets close to Sweeney's source material. Other Sondheim shows. ;)

musical talent goes a LONG way in musicals. duh.

Yeah, you'd think that it would be a no-brainer for casting, wouldn't you? But it isn't.

In addition to the musical talent, Hairspray was a helluva lot of fun. There's so much to be said about that. :)

J.J. said...

Right: Hairspray was fun. Sweeney, despite its darkness and gore, is supposed to be fun as well. Instead it was a downer.

StinkyLulu said...

I sorta liked that it was a downer, though. I felt Burton's was a different, but apt, approach to the piece. Much darker and, for me (though not for you, obviously, JJ), much more moving than I'm used to with this piece.

NATHANIEL R said...

this is what i meant about the flexibility. i was fine with it being less of a comedy this time around.

my only worry with film adaptations of stage shows is that future stage shows will worry about recreating the movies and that would be bad.

El Gigante said...

Maybe I'm a bit of a sick puppy but I laughed plenty in this version. It
s a very dark sort of comedy but some of the cuts during "By the Sea" were hilarious. As was the fact that now the bodies go down the hole head-first so that upon landing their necks crack is pretty damn funny. While my dream version of the movie has a much bigger version of "A Little Priest" it was incredibly satisfying and impressive. One of if not the best of Burton's whole cannon.

Anon in Yorkshire said...

Like others here, hugely impressed by your reveiw Nathaniel.

I will also be reading it to my senior drama group. We'd been working on the Ballad as a piece of choral speaking (because I'm no musician). It worked really, really well and reinforces the point that good material (and is there any better?) is infinitely flexible.

With this in mind, the start of next term will see them taking the material and seeing just how far they can bend it and still get it to work.

As always, thank you. And Happy Seasonal whatever the appropriate PC term is these days. I go for Christmas and New Year myself.

Also - the casting always seemed as though it would be the weakness, so it's especially interesting to hear thoughts on that.

Anonymous said...

In the end, it didn't do it for me. I'm usually okay with Tim Burton's bizarro tendencies, but here it went too far. Depp and Carter's voices weren't up to snuff, and that's criminal for "Sweeney Todd" of all things. Too much was cut from the original work as well. I don't see this being an Oscar darling either.

Jose said...

How was Sacha?, just curious is the Ben Kingsley version any good?

KIC said...

I saw this yesterday. I'm a HUGE fan of the stage musical. I was a little worried that the brilliant score would be shoved back for the shock effect of gore and outrageousness . Oh. My. God. I have never seen such a perfect translation of a stage musical to film. It flowed seamlessly. Every person was perfectly cast. It was a visual feast. It was stylized, keeping the "melodrama" aspect, but still managing to paint an emotional, poignant portrait of people so broken by circumstance that you know they cannot be fixed and yet you follow willingly into their insane world. I could have sat and watched it over again immediately. I will definitely be seeing it again, probably at least twice before it leaves the big screen. Hopefully your theater has state of the art sound, because every bit of this should be heard. If you are familiar with the musical, you do have to accept that The Ballad is there only musically, because it's purpose is as a device for theater, and, IMO also to in some ways alleviate the horror of the story. Here, you don't have that, nor do you need it. It's unapologetic in any way about the tale being told. But it is not unsympathetic, which is the brilliance of this musical in any form and I think heightened in the film. Unlike the stage play, the humor is not there to break the tension, but unfolds naturally to underscore the madness. If you can accept that this is a painting, of a tragic story, in music and shadows, you will be in for a real experience, not just a movie.

(Yes it is gory and violent, but it is in the nature of the story. The blood is stylized and not realistic. You simply should be aware that this is the story of a serial killer in Victorian England but it is not the story you think it is from that simple statement).

Anonymous said...

This movie is arguably the single biggest piece of garbage I've ever seen. Edward Scissorhands? One of the best. It's amazing to me that the same man made both of these films. Just goes to show you what a bunch of bullshit awards really are anyway. Boo to this one - I want a refund.

Anonymous said...

This movie sucked six ways from sunday. People were leaving the theater after the first 15 minutes of it. Flatline this one - hope Tim Burton has something left to give us. He's such a brilliant filmmaker. It was sad to watch this one.

Anonymous said...

I for one, very much enjoyed this movie. My favorite character always had to be Nellie. So sweet and innocent on the outside, but this strong, crazy, while also keeping her love for Sweeeney alive on the inside woman. I loved how Carter's voice was so soft and sweet, but her mind was decepetive over her voice. And after I saw the movie, I knew I HAS to see the show. And now I have the DVD of the Lansbury and Hearn stage show, and I watch it often. I enjoyed this movcie very much, and I left sad (about the sad ending) but excited by the movie itself.