Thursday, November 15, 2007

An Evening with Tim Burton & Sweeney Todd

I'd like to tell you a little bit about what Tim Burton said about Batman Returns, Pee Wee's Big Adventure and even Planet of the Apes last night. See, I roll like that: I don't need cinema to be new to get me chatty. But I rather think you might slash my throat and serve me up as pie if I don't get straight to the business of Sweeney Todd

They showed Tom O'Neil, myself and a few hundred other salivating folks three scenes from the Sondheim musical, roughly 17 minutes of film. Yes, I wanted the other 100 some immediately thereafter.

The scenes --all musical ones even though the movie isn't the nearly sung through operetta that the stage show is-- were in chronological order. Burton intro'ed them only by describing them something like this

'Sweeney arrives'
'Sweeney gets pissed'
'Sweeney gets down to business'

'Sweeney arrives' is the "My Friends" number from the stage show which is sung to the demon barber's blades. He hasn't seen them in years. Before the singing Sweeney (Johnny Depp) gets the skinny as to what's gone down with his family from Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter). Rather immediately it's apparent that Burton and design team have gone for a muted Sweeney Todd. The room where Sweeney will do his barbaric barbery is unadorned and gray. The actors are going straight for haunted drama rather than the blackly comic effect of the musical's most famous version: Mrs Lovett seems matter of fact and tired; Sweeney, miserable and single minded. Their voices? Helena sounds good but we didn't get to hear much so I could be wrong. Depp's voice is sadly lacking in the power and melodic department. He sings on key and he's a strong enough actor that the performance looks to be compensating for the vocal troubles but it'll be frustrating to musical aficionados. The Sondheim lyrics are still obviously brilliant though --you can't muck that up unless you rewrite them.

Anyway....back to the scene. The barber hardly seems to notice his female companion once his blades come out. Mrs Lovett joins his song anyway. I loved the brilliant shot of Mrs Lovett reflected in Sweeney's blade, pulling him out of his song and trance.

'Sweeney gets pissed' takes you out into the streets where the same pervasive grayness rules. The song "Epiphany" is all about Sweeney Todd's misanthropy
There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
And it's filled with people who are filled with shit
And the vermin of the world inhabit it.
But not for long...

They all deserve to die.
Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why.
Three scenes is not a lot to go on but the desaturated, almost black and white look that this production chose is fairly striking. The new movie doesn't appear to be erring on the side of Burton's typical creepy cute visual flourishes which is a very good thing. Sweeney doesn't need cute. It needs creepy. The grayness of the palette pays off beautifully in the best scene they showed, the last: the one where the red blood starts flowing.

"Johanna", one of the musical's most beloved numbers, is sung beautifully by Jamie Campbell Bower who plays Johanna's suitor Anthony. Mr Todd chimes in from time to time (for Sweeney newbies, Johanna is the demon barber's daughter whom his arch enemy Judge Turpin has adopted and raised since Sweeney was sent away) and Depp's voice works much better in the scene --when he's not asked to carry the song it's not distracting, the rough quality feels more like a character choice than a drawback. In this sequence we also see several very gruesome murders. The blood is a shock in the desaturated surroundings but what'll throw hands up over eyes and/or ears in theater is the disgusting disposal of the bodies, filmed in loving detail. Gross.

To sum up: Helena and Johnny continue to be fine actors but they don't sing as well as Broadway or other movie stars with vocal training (this shouldn't surprise anyone). We saw not a glimpse of Sacha Baron Cohen or Alan Rickman. The technical elements look great --Oscar nominations can be safely anticipated (how many is where the debate will lie). I'm now hopeful that this'll be a good scary musical drama even if the songs won't sound as great as this Sondheim fanatic was hoping for.

P.S. More on that evening with Tim Burton here

P.S. II Some Oscar thoughts re: Depp and the movie.

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Brian Darr said...

OK, then, not to be demanding, but what did he say about Batman Returns, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Planet of the Apes?

- a former Burton fanatic who is not very familiar with Sondheim, to his regret.

adam k. said...

This is interesting, because I just today did a post about how I think Johnny is gonna win the oscar. I don't think the film'll sweep or anything, but I feel the tides turning. And if it's received warmly at all, Depp will be a force.

Good to hear that the film seems like it'll be good.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments, Nathaniel.

You know though, and I am not necessarily defending the vocal abilities of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, but in the decades of talk about how SWEENEY TODD could possibly work on screen, one of the main points of discussion was how do you make a largely operatic stage musical work in a realistic setting on film? How is Sweeney going to belt out "My Friends" when he is actually in a true life small, dingy, upstairs barber shop?

The truth is he can't. Not the way its done on stage - it simply wouldn't work on film, and thus, no matter who you cast as Lovett and Todd - even if they were Barbra Streisand and Placido Domingo, the vocals would have to be really held back in power to fit into the scope of cinema.

I have no doubt that there will be some (especially Sondheim purists) who will complain that Depp's singing is a disappointment and that the piece would have been better served by someone like Hugh Jackman -

But -

We all know, if the film is a success, it will largely be because of Depp's enormous fan base and respect as an actor.

SWEENEY TODD is great material. It's endured as a melodrama, a Wagnerian opera under Hal Prince, an over the top Penny Dreadful under Susan Schulman and an austere chamber piece under John Doyle.

Burton's interpretation may end up being the most macabre and subdued of them all, but my guess is that the power of the music and story will come shining through regardless.

Glenn Dunks said...

Good to hear.


But Brady, you can still sing in a subdued manner and be a GREAT singer. And for music to be served up at its most exquisite it really needs trained and gifted vocalists.

i guess i just don't understand the resistance to professionalism. i think maybe it's part of this weird americana belief that everyone can be anything... no training or education required.

i guess the reason it frustrates me so much is that there ARE movie stars with great vocal ability. It's not even like you have to cast unknowns.

and i have no doubt that Depp's involvement will put asses in seats. And I happen to love Johnny Depp as an actor. I just think it's disappointing that he didn't spend more time training. why would you not be all that you could be when you're given a role from the musical theater canon?

i like Tim Burton but I would have A LOT more respect for him if he just said something like "I cast Johnny and Helena because they're my friend and wife" rather than talking about how he thought bringing nonsingers in would add something interesting to the music. I call BULLSHIT on that. and again: I like all three people involved and the movie looks pretty good (from these limited scenes)

adam k. said...

More time training would've been good. There is really no excuse for not having him train. Other than the fact that Burton doesn't come from musical theater and doesn't know what he's doing.

One can bitch and harp and nitpick about Rob Marshall casting non-singers in Chicago, but the fact is that was a studio decision, he wanted singer/dancers and he made the actors train extensively, She Who Must Not Be Named in particular. So I applaud him for that.

I just hope Johnny and Helena pull it off.

Gina Sackman said...

Nathaniel, come on now.... there may be some actors who could sing a tad better than Depp, but I don't believe for a second that they could pull off the role the way Johnny can and has. He didn't do lessons because he wanted it to be raw, he wanted the emotion to be up front rather than technicalities. He knew the emotion was more important and I thought that was quite brave and inspiring of him. And Sondheim said himself that the film needed actors first, singers second.. and after hearing some of Johnny's recordings, he approved completely. Sondheim approved of Helena in the very beginning and that's what got her the role, he loved the way she played the part.
The film is not a stage musical, and that's what needs to be kept in mind. I'm a big Sondheim/Sweeney snob and was a bit upset about Depp's casting at first but then I really thought about it - I thought about everything I've just said to you, and I thought, "Of course! Of course Depp is playing Sweeney." Not one Sondheim fan who has seen the entire film has had anything to complain about. In fact, they think it's the adaptation we've been waiting 30 years for. I think you're being too harsh as most of us use to be, but we got over it. I mean, who wants to watch the exact musical in film form? That would be quite pointless. Don't you think? Tim's taking a big risk here. And I think he's done his job and exceeded most people's expectations. That's all we can really ask of a musical to film transfer, right?

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about the training, Nathaniel, and the fact is that Johnny Depp claimed in an interview that he had no training. He didn't feel it was right for him, and that it would actually interfere with him getting to the character and the acting. So he actually never went to a voice teacher or for vocal coaching.

It definitely shows. But I don't think it's something that the average movie-goer will pick up. Professional musicians, particularly singers, and music aficionados might. If the acting is great enough it won't matter though.

Full-blown Broadway stage style singing would never work in film, but a skilled, trained singer knows how to sing differently for various music styles and media. Such a person would have known how to sing well for the film while still toning it down.

Either way, I have a lot of admiration and respect for Depp. I'm sure that he won't disappoint with his acting.


Gina having talked to Tim Burton's people the film is still posting. So who are these people that have seen the entire thing? It's not finished. If you're talking about people who've worked on the film than you're dealing with a very biased group ;) They're still editing... won't be screening it until after Thanksgiving.

as to "technical skill would get in the way" this is what i'm talking about with the lie Hollywood keeps perpretrating: technical skill does NOT prevent a singer from getting into the emotion of the song and telling you about the character, it HELPS. Technical skill improves performance (unless that's all the actor relies on... but with Depp, he's already a great actor so technical skill would have only improved things)

i'm not trying to be contentious. Again I really liked what I saw... I just think that the whole notion that professional singing doesn't belong in musicals is damaging to the form...

alison nobody is asking for Depp to do a parody of showtune singing: a certain quiet roughness is right for the character but even within that, there's no melodic sense and he has to shout words where a trained singer could have conveyed the anger but still sang the notes.

NITPICKING! ;) but true.

sorry people, not budging on this one. I love Depp --One of my favorite actors-- but training would have only helped him give an even better performance.

Anonymous said...

So what did Burton say about Batman Returns, Pee Wee's Big Adventure and even Planet of the Apes???

Emma said...

Great post, can't wait for the movie.

Anonymous said...

Ugh ... this movie is going to suck. Like all recent Burton films, it will look great, move a lot, make no sense, and leave you cold.

Mark my words, kids.


another post coming up with more Burton (non Sweeney stuff)

Anonymous said...

alison nobody is asking for Depp to do a parody of showtune singing: a certain quiet roughness is right for the character but even within that, there's no melodic sense and he has to shout words where a trained singer could have conveyed the anger but still sang the notes.

Nathaniel, why the snarkiness? I was actually agreeing with you about the technical training. I was very disturbed when I read that he had absolutely no coaching whatsoever. Yes, technical skill would have been a huge difference, and I'm not expecting Depp to do a parody of showtune singing. Of course singers emote through the music and the beautiful quality of their voices! Many people don't seem to believe this and I don't understand why.

And I agree with you that Hollywood takes shortcuts. Everything has been so synthesized that people don't even know the difference between the real thing and a synthesized product. Unfortunately that's the way it is.

- Alison Flynn

btw, the "Other" identity isn't working, which is why I had to click anonymous - it may just be my computer, but I thought I should let you know.

Anonymous said...

The three numbers are of course now on Youtube, and I have to say, vocally I think Depp and Carter sound fine. More than fine actually.

I understand your point Nathaniel, and there are movie stars with great singing voices, though when you look at the absolute A list - the stars that can single handedly green light a project and ensure a box office take, the list is cut down signficantly.

Most of the major movie musical success stories - particularly in terms of Oscars - have relied on heavy star casting in the leading roles. The difference was that in the 60s particularly, there wasn't the stigma, or perhaps wide instant public awareness about huge box office draws like Audrey Hepburn and Natalie Wood being dubbed.

I guess it just comes down to personal preference - I personally thought the best production of SWEENEY TODD I ever saw was John Doyle's LONDON production that featured vastly inferior singing to what was heard on Broadway. But it worked given the confines of a theatre the size of a New York apartment.

Ask a Sondheim fan and you'll never get a happy consensus on anything - I know a hand ful of theatre fans that are still pissed because Michael Cerveris sang Sweeney as a Tenor and not a Baritone (!)

Anonymous said...

i think kate wislet should've been cast as lovett and am sure if she'd have been married to burton she would've,i can't stand the way burton cats h=is wives in troles for which they r not suited and the collaborating with johnny d just because he was off kilter and wacky in ed wood,ed s/hands and s.hollow does not mean he is write for this and judging by reviews of footage and trailers he is repeating himself a little,still think he will win the oscar and maybe carter is blachetts competition in support and page's if in lead.

Anonymous said...

Kate Winslet is too young for Lovett, even opposite Johnny Depp. She'd be a great Dot in SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE.

Anonymous said...

I think Helena Bonham-Carter has a very sweet voice, at least from the little bit that I heard of it. She actually did take voice lessons for 9 months. Not a huge amount of time, but enough to get some of the basics. And I respect that she put that effort into her preparation for the role.

Her voice may not be as strong as those of the other Lovetts, but it doesn't have to be on film. She doesn't need to project to the back of a large theater.

Yes, Kate Winslet is definitely too young for Lovett.

Anonymous said...

"So who are these people that have seen the entire thing? It's not finished. If you're talking about people who've worked on the film than you're dealing with a very biased group ;) They're still editing... won't be screening it until after Thanksgiving."

Nathaniel, there has already been one screening for the entire film (less credits) in LA, and Harry Knowles at AICN saw the film as well.


well... what they're seeing is not a completed version. the film IS still in post (unless everyone including Tim Burton is lying) so maybe they're screening a partially completed cut that's still waiting for touch ups.

Alison --sorry if i sounded snarky. I am touchy about musicals ;) I don't understand why Hollywood doesn't trust them. It was only in the 80s when they all flopped. It's been depressing to read things around the net about how training doesn't matter. Can you imagine how much suckier the arts in general would be if nobody had to log any time preparing or learning their craft?

when did practice makes perfect become an obsolete notion. (and didn't jamie foxx not rehearse for his musical numbers in dreamgirls too? and notice how he gave the worst performance in the movie even though he has some musical talent)

this is off topic but this issue is one of the reasons I admire Madonna so much. She never stops trying to improve. Can you imagine other pop divas taking vocal lessons after selling 100 million albums just so they could do their new role justice? Or learning the guitar after decades of super stardom?


oh and brady -i'm aware that you'll never get consensus from sondheim fans ;) ...we are a critical but fanatical bunch.

"reviewing" three scenes is so weird. The rest of the film could be much better or worse. but I thought y'all would like to hear about it regardless. Poland points out how misleading this might be on the Hot Blog too and I think he has a real point. I was taking this as "ooh, they've gone completely dramatic. But all three of those numbers have very limited comic elements. If 'a little priest' is played for horror rather than laughs (which it could conceivably be) than they've jettisoned the comedy. But we won't know until we see the full movie

Anonymous said...

No problem, Nathaniel. :)

I definitely understand where you're coming from. And overall I think your feedback on the clips has been positive (the visuals, etc.), and you did compliment Depp's acting.

From listening to the 'secret' clips that are circulating all over the Internet the orchestrations are absolutely gorgeous. Helena has a small voice but it really is very pretty. She took voice lessons in preparation. It wasn't even for a year, so she won't have much more skill than the basics, but I respect her for putting in that effort.

I'm a professional singer. Despite the fact that I work regularly in various venues (live, recording studios) and several genres of music I still take voice lessons every week and I practice everyday. One never stops working at and improving their craft if they really care about it. Believe me when I tell you I was very upset to read that Depp didn't bother with any training or coaching. And I think it shows. Of course, the general audience will not pick up on things that I do, like the fact that he scoops up to the higher notes in order to get at them (a method that amateurs have to use to reach notes because they don't have the skill to do it any other way). I could go on, but it would bore most people. I don't think Depp meant to be dismissive of the music or the singing when he made his choice, but it kind of feels to me like a slight to people who actually work at the craft, even though I know it really isn't. It's just Hollywood. They would have made three bucks at the box office if they cast, say, Cerveris and Lupone in the movie. As Brady observed above, Johnny Depp puts butts in the seats.

Cliff Johnson said...

Having just watched the original cast video of "Sweeney Todd" on Halloween night, I cannot understand why such a meek and physically unintimidating actor has been cast in the titular role.

I love Johnny Depp, but he is forever a harmless eccentric in his best film roles. (Though one fine exception is his "Donnie Brasco.")

Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" is a brash and blaring musical thriller with a nasty streak and a wicked sense of humor.

Tim Burton was brilliant in adapting "Sleepy Hollow." His adaptations of "Planet of the Apes" and "Willie Wonka," however, were disastrous.

On Broadway, "Sweeney Todd" was staged with minimal production value. The success of the play came from the virtuoso musical performances.

Creating a movie with eerie Gothic sensibilities and strained musical performances is completely missing the point of the original play.

If one cannot commit to a boisterous film production of "Sweeney Todd," then why bother?

Anonymous said...

Creating a movie with eerie Gothic completely missing the point of the original play.

That part I don't agree with, Cliff. True that the musical was staged with minimal production value on Broadway, but that would be too sparse for film. As long as Burton has kept the comic elements of the show in the movie, instead of it just being continuously dark, then I think it will be fine. I have no problem with the Gothic sensibilities and it certainly fits the period.

I recently watched the 1982 DVD again as well. George Hearn's voice is beautiful. I will always be partial to his voice. But George's acting is also terrific (and Angie's too of course). I love his facial expressions.

I think Depp will do justice to the role of Sweeney with his acting. And there's a good chance that he will be nominated for an Oscar. I don't think the Academy voters will judge his singing; they'll be judging his acting.

But we shall see. I won't be seeing the film until late December/early January.

Cliff Johnson said...

Creating a movie with eerie Gothic completely missing the point of the original play.

But Alison, your ... contained the crux of my argument.

and strained musical performances

Even Tim Burton's best production values are no trade-off for uninspired musical performances.

I am of the school that, if you are going to make a film production of a Broadway musical, then, foremost, you must sing, sing, sing.

Oliver! The Music Man! West Side Story! Chicago! Dreamgirls! Hairspray!

Arguably, the film versions of Camelot, and especially Man of La Mancha, flopped because everybody was talk-singing and/or barely singing.

The sole motivation for Stephen Sondheim to give his okay for 1993's Gypsy with Bette Midler was, in his words, "to capture the unabridged production as it was staged." And you can bet that Bette belted out the tunes precisely as they were intended.

Why make a film musical if you are afraid that the music is going to alienate the audience?

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with you about the strained musical performances at all. That's why I didn't quote that section of your sentence, only the 'gothic' part.


yeah Cliff i don't get that hesitation either. Sweeney Todd existed in many other forms before Sondheim... so if you are uncomfortable about the music part, just make a gothic melodrama or black comedy or whatever. It's very flexible material.

I'm so tired of reading these think pieces on how to work around the "music" problem. it's NOT the problem. The problem is that people think it's the problem.

and why?

who the hell knows.

I'm also tired of hearing the 'don't want to alienate the Burton fans with music' thing. Um...Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a massive hit. It had musical numbers (not that the numbers were good. but whatever)

DREAMGIRLS, CHICAGO, HAIRSPRAY, MOULIN ROUGE! all hits and all hits within the last 6 years.

people like musicals. that's my story and i'm sticking to it.

Anonymous said...

Nathaniel, are you 'parlo' on IMDB? You have a lot of responses to your comment there. :)

Glenn Dunks said...

Here's a thought? If a performer on Broadway decided he would rather be "raw" instead of technically good would they be booed off the stage?

Anonymous said...

Probably, unless it's a rock musical and miked, in which case he wouldn't have to project.

Anonymous said...

The other thing I've noticed is that people seem to make a distinction between singing and acting. I've noticed many comments such as this one:

The answer is you cast leads who are trained singers. But then the question is what effect does that have on the acting. It all depends on what's important to you. I put more weight on the acting.

Comments like that imply a belief that singing and acting are mutually exclusive, and that is not at all the case. What makes people think that if they hired trained singers that the acting would suffer? Musical theater performers train in both aspects of the craft. Singing is acting, even for those in musical theater. You have to deliver the following to your audience: the lyrics, the music, and the emotion contained in both. Any proficient singer and performer knows that.

Perhaps Hollywood operates under the same notion as the person who posted the comment I quoted.

Matt Sigl said...

Two things.
1. I have seen the whole movie (in a marketing screening) and

2. I am as big a Sondheim purist and devotee as anyone.

I thought Depp, though hardly George Hearn or Michael Ceveris vocally, soudned fine and the forgiving power of sound mixing and the intimacy of the the camera make a voice that wouldn't work on stage play fine on film. His acting is extrodinary. (Carter's singing leaves a little more to be desired.) Plus, listen to that original Braodway Cast Album...Len Cariou's voice is shot and he still won the tony! Sweeney is the best film I have seen this year and the adaptation is everything that Sweeney fans could hope for.

Anonymous said...

mrs, aren't you Steve at cinefantastique?

Matt Sigl said...

no. But that guy and me were at the same screening.

Colin Low said...

Here's a thought? If a performer on Broadway decided he would rather be "raw" instead of technically good would they be booed off the stage?

That's an interesting point to make. The most obvious situation in which singing and acting are mutually exclusive is with roles that involve being a musical star wannabe. Sally Bowles (in Cabaret) and Roxie Hart (in Chicago) have both been played with poor singing, because the *characters* themselves were poor performers. When Liza Minelli's Sally Bowles claims that she'll become a big star, you almost don't believe that she won't. She's too good.

In such cases, critics have almost always lambasted the choice of poor singing (even if it were true to the character) over great singing. And though I don't agree with them, I can see merit in that stance. Audiences don't attend musicals to watch actors sing poorly.

That may be one reason why the trailers for Sweeney Todd have de-emphasised the singing. Because they don't want to set up the expectations that people have for musicals; instead they want to stress the revenge tale. (The other reason is that attracting the musical audience is the wrong idea; rather, you want to attract the people suited to the grand guignol mood.)

Of course, the singing-over-acting argument may be a moot point in the case of Sweeney Todd, since there's no self-reference to poor singing in it. But Johnny Depp has claimed that he didn't want to be distracted by his formal training while singing his lines: "I just didn't see the character developing with me doing scales in front of a piano, with a vocal teacher going, 'No, no — bring it up from the bollocks.' That kind of thing would have been a disaster." And I can see where he's coming from, given the time frame with which he had to work. For a musically trained actor whose vocal technique has become instinct, it's easier to use the tricks he has learnt to crafting the character. But it's hard to internalise such technique within less than a year, to let one's instincts about the character stay at the forefront.

And having heard the bootleg audio clips of Depp's performance, I'd say it's pretty good. Just that I don't agree with what I've seen of the visual look of the movie so far (that white streak in Sweeney's hair is far too unrealistic), but if Burton can pull it off I think he'll do fine.

Anonymous said...

Most people who "know" the original SWEENEY are commenting on the video presentation with George Hearn, who stylistically gave a very, very big, over the top (some, including Angela Lansbury off the record, have said 'hammy') performance.

Len Cariou's performance couldn't have been more different - it was subtle and intense. Cariou, who never had a big voice, also suffered vocal damage early in the run (not from singing, but from breathing the dirt used in the opening gravedigging prologue). In other words - the performance that truly put Sweeney on the map, that won Cariou at Tony Award completely sidestepped vocal histrionics or operatic posturing.

The size of Depp's voice or perceived physical presence shouldn't truly have much effect on his potential "power" in the role.

Anonymous said...

The size of Depp's voice or perceived physical presence shouldn't truly have much effect on his potential "power" in the role.

True, Brady, the size of the voice won't matter since it's on film and volume etc. can be electronically enhanced. And I have no doubt that Depp's acting will be great.

Mapeel said...

On that same Wednesday night Angela Lansbury was at The Paley Center for Media, for an evening looking at her television work (which is far deeper and richer than just Mrs. Fletcher).

ST with Lansbury and Hearn was filmed for television, so we were treated to clips from that. Still a thrill--what talents.

And a story, that she was living in rural Ireland when Sondheim was trying to reach her about the part. They sent a telegram to the village late in the evening, and the telegraph operator called to read it to her. Lansbury did her best Irish accent, "It's from Hal Prince. He wants you to play Mrs. Lovett. Who's she?"

Anonymous said...


That's awesome. I love Angie. Thanks for sharing that story.