“Sweeney Todd”: a brief review

| April 2, 2008

I missed seeing Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” while it was in theaters. It was not for a lack of desire; it’s just that I don’t like going to the movies by myself, especially if my wife isn’t out of town — and she just wasn’t that interested in seeing it. Sigh. But it came out on DVD this week. I picked up a copy today while shopping for my very large scale barbecue (VLSB) this weekend. I sat and watched it once; watched the ‘making of’ documentary; and have had the movie playing a second time while taking care of various tasks around the kitchen/living room. It’s playing as I type this review.

Stephen Sondheim is perhaps my favorite theater songwriter, and “Sweeney Todd” is definitely my favorite Sondheim work. That said, I’ve never had the opportunity to see it produced live on stage. I’ve listened to the 1979 Broadway cast recording (Angela Lansbury, Len Cariou) any number of times, and I’ve watched the slightly later DVD of the Broadway production. So I was thrilled when I learned that Tim Burton was filming it, but wondered just how it would turn out.

My verdict: it’s great. Johnny Depp (Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd) is no Len Cariou — but, then, Len Cariou is no Johnny Depp. Depp looks like a character form a horror film (deliberately so on Burton’s part), and he acquits himself quite well with the singing — though his singing tends to sound a bit more modern (rather than operatic) in spots. I had far more concerns about Helena Bonham Carter (Mrs. Lovett). Angela Lansbury did such a stunning job with this role on Broadway (for which she won a Tony, and did Cariou). Carter makes the role her own, and there’s a natural chemistry between her and Depp. Alan Rickman’s casting as Judge Turpin is also wonderful,. Seeing Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford is a bit disconcerting, since I’ve most recently seen him play a similar — but comedic — role in “Enchanted”, which makes it hard to take him seriously in this role. The rest of the cast is great.

The movie cuts several numbers, scenes, and characters, while collapsing or shortening a few other plot elements — and, frankly, that’s not bad. My one criticism of the stage version of “Sweeney Todd” is that it’s, well, a bit long and repetitive. The movie does a good job of stripping the story down to its essentials, so that it never drags. The only music I miss is the chorus number, “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”, which (in the stage version) starts the show, is reprised several time during the show, and then ends the show. An instrumental version appears at a few spots in the movie, but I think it could have been used effectively in either the opening or closing credits. Overall, Sondheim’s music permeates the film and meshes very, very well with Burton’s direction and the film’s art design.

I do have one criticism, which quite frankly applies to the stage version as well. The dialog and songs in “Sweeney Todd” are fast and complex — often with two people singing different lyrics simultaneously — and are usually done with lower-class English accent; as such, it’s often hard to understand just what’s being said and/or sung. And here’s where the DVD has a big advantage over seeing the movie in a theater: you can turn on English subtitles. If you’re not really familiar with the music and libretto of “Sweeney Todd”, you may want to turn them on. Heck, you may want to turn them on, anyway (they’re on as I type this).

“Sweeney Todd” the movie — like the show — is about 70-80% singing, with the rest spoken dialog (though often with music in the background). This gives it a major advantage over most other DVDs: it’s something you can simply listen to without having to actually watch the movie itself. Which, as noted, is exactly what I’ve been doing while writing this review. Most of my DVDs get played once or twice, then put away and are pulled out only occasionally.

This one I will play a lot. ..bruce w..

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Category: Main, Movies, Reviews

About the Author ()

Webster is Principal and Founder at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science at Brigham Young University. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at bwebster@bfwa.com, or you can follow him on Twitter as @bfwebster.

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