What is it about musicals, anyway? If someone said to me, "Hey, wanna go see a movie about a barber who kills people and a baker who chops up the bodies and serves them in pies?" my response would probably be something along the lines of, "Um, ew! No thank you!" But say it's a musical, and I'm all "Goody! I can't wait! I will obsess about it periodically in my LiveJournal for months on end!"
Well, it wasn't quite as simple as that. In the first place, I like musicals, and in the second place, I'm in awe of Johnny Depp, so what's not to like? Moreover, I've been kind of curious about Sweeney Todd for many, many years, since I took a class on the history of musical theater, and it seems like we spent an inordinate of time on Stephen Sondheim (I think Mr. Y. is a particular fan).
I make a lot of jokes about Stephen Sondheim because I really had a difficult time learning my song for "A Little Night Music", and because a lot of his music is not to my taste. Nevertheless, I do feel a certain fondness for him, as well as quite a bit of respect. His lyrics are clever, his shows are intelligent, and he certainly doesn't conform to traditional notions of what a musical should be. In fact, I respect him for a lot of the same reasons that I respect Johnny Depp; they don't pander to an audience, and they don't sell out their artistic integrity. For example, Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a new (and sucky) song for the film adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, presumably so that it would be eligible for the Best Original Song at the Oscars and so that people who already owned a cast recording would be compelled to buy the movie soundtrack; whereas Stephen Sondheim didn't write any new music for Sweeney Todd. He also doesn't sell a lot of sheet music (which is where musicals make a lot of their money) because most of his songs don't make sense out of context. I was surprised, actually, by how much really pretty music is in Sweeney Todd, because I consider myself reasonably well-versed in musical theater, and I'd heard very few of the songs. Also, apart from the not-making-sense-out-of-context factor, there's also the squeamish factor for those who do know the original context of the songs and their ominous significance to the story. For example, there's a nice little ballad in Sweeney Todd called "Not While I'm Around", and if you didn't know better you'd think it was a sweet little lullaby, but when you know what they're actually singing about it and what has happened in the context of the story, and what's about to happen, it loses some of its charm. But then again, that's part of Sondheim's skill, is that he quite skilled at juxtaposing innocence and...the darker aspects of human nature, for lack of a better way to put it.
Anyway, I'm really glad that I hadn't seen the stage version of Sweeney Todd and that I wasn't very familiar with the music because I didn't have any pre-conceived notions of what it's "supposed" to look like or sound like, which kind of got in the way of my enjoying Hairspray. The downside of not being familiar with the stage show is that I can't make a comparison between the two. It did, however, make me really curious to see it because, having seen the movie, the story seems so cinematic (with the shifting of locales and all) that I'm curious to see how it gets staged.
Maybe you should seek a less biased opinion, maybe it's just because he has me in thrall, but I really, really enjoyed Johnny Depp's singing. Moreover, I think I appreciated it more in conjunction with his acting (which, of course will, always be his strongest suit) than I did just listening to the samples from the soundtrack, because while listening I couldn't appreciate how his vocal stylistic choices were contributing to his interpretation of the character as a whole. I also have to commend him for even attempting Sondheim as his first musical performance, and moreso for pulling it off.
I know that there has been some criticism of Tim Burton for casting his "favorites" rather than more seasoned musical performers, and I can see the point that those critics make. On the other hand, at least Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are actually good actors. And I'm glad he didn't think, "Oh, I've got to get singers," and cast some pop stars or something; that could have turned out really badly. I read an interview with Johnny Depp in which he said something about bringing a "punk rock" sound to it, but I didn't hear that at all (not that I necessarily would recognize it anyway). Anyway, I guess my point is that I'm glad Tim Burton got actors who needed some singing training rather than singers who needed some acting training. I don't know that it's necessarily easier to teach someone to sing than to act, but I think it takes less time.
Since I'm on the subject of actors, I thought all the casting was very well done. I mean, it's hard to go wrong with Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall; chances are that whatever they do, it's going to be brilliant. However, apparently Alan Rickman's character of Judge Turpin is quite a bit more rounded in the musical, whereas here he didn't have much else to do besides be evil and lecherous, but he certainly did that well, and perhaps with more subtlety than might have been expected.
I thought less of the young ingenues, Jayne Wisener as Johanna and Jamie Campbell Bower as Anthony. They could sing, bless them, I'll give them that; they sang their little hearts out like a couple of angels, and they looked pretty so...good for them. According to IMDb they had considered Anne Hathaway for the role of Johanna, and I kind of wish they'd gone that route because I think she could have brought a bit more depth to the character in her limited amount of screen time. On the other hand, unless they could have persuaded Sondheim to change some lyrics (unlikely), she would have had to be blond, which probably would have brought on flashbacks to that horrendous blond wig she wore in Brokeback Mountain, which would not have been a good thing, so it's just as well. Although, as it was, Johanna looked amazingly like Christina Ricci in Sleepy Hollow, which was really annoying and distracting. Also, in comparing this picture to this picture, it looks like they gave her brown contacts. Why? So she'd look like the baby who plays her in the beginning? So she'd look more like the people playing her parents? I can't tell from the pictures and the trailer what color her mother's eyes are. On the one hand, it annoys me when directors don't take eye color and genetics into account when casting and making up families, but on the other hand, it's genetically possible for two brown-eyed people to have a child with light-colored eyes, so unless there's lyric I missed about Johanna having dark eyes or eyes like her father's I don't see why they bothered to change her eye color. Whatever the reason, I wish they hadn't done it, because it makes her look like an android. As for Anthony, I read a review which claimed that his looks had the power to distract the viewer from looking at Johnny Depp, but I didn't find that to be the case at all. Rather, every time he was on screen I was like, "excuse me, could you get that scrawny, bug-eyed kid out of the way?"
That said, the kid who played Toby was really really good; he had both the acting chops and the singing chops and could very well have stolen the show. This is the first movie in which I've seen Sacha Baron Cohen, but based on his reputation he also had the capacity to steal the show, and therefore I admire his restraint. Good to see that he's actually an actor and capable of subtlety, and I do feel that he was very well suited to the role of the swaggering, larger-that-life huckster Pirelli.
I posed the question earlier, what is it about musicals that makes them so appealing, even when the subject matter may be completely repugnant. I hope someday I get around to answering this question about musicals in general, because I have some thoughts about it, but I'm afraid that for my purposes here it will get too far off topic. But anyway, in the case of this movie and this story, I think it helps to highlight the unreality of it, or the cartoonishness, if you will. I don't care for violence in films, but I can handle it better if it's so over-the-top as to be cartoonish and unrealistic; you see, I usually suspend disbelief quite willingly and quite easily, so when the violence is done too realistically it's upsetting to me, so I don't mind being taken out of it somewhat with the over-the-top violence, although I try to avoid the problem completely by averting my eyes as much as possible. Also, the music helps to contribute to some much needed comic relief. There's a song called "By the Sea" in which Mrs. Lovett daydreams about how she and Sweeney are going to settle down and get married once he's done with his revenge business, and he's just sitting there staring into space and brooding, and it comes right before the climax when everything comes to a head and there's lots and lots of death and killing and it's quite upsetting, so I'm quite glad that Burton left that song in for the comic relief. And then also Sondheim's clever lyrics throughout add to the comic relief aspect of it; you don't necessarily want to laugh but you can't really help it.
And speaking of laughter, while I enjoyed the movie in itself and for itself, there's some potential for riffing, or if you prefer, there's potential for entertainment by deconstruction. I riffed on it a little bit myself (not out loud, because there were quite a few people there, even though I was the first to arrive in the theater), partly for entertainment purposes and partly as a defense mechanism from the violence, because as I've mentioned, I don't handle violence very well. I don't remember a lot of my riffs because they were dependent on specific dialogue and whatnot, so most of what I do remember is the connections I made to other movies, as I did in the title of this post. Actually, I realized while watching the credits that the costume designer for this film, Colleen Atwood, is the same person who designed the costumes for Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (which, incidentally, also featured Timothy Spall). So it's no wonder that Sweeney Todd looked so much like Count Olaf; for all we know she recycled Count Olaf's costume. And now that I think about it, Series of Unfortunate Events also features a corrupt guardian trying to marry a ward for nefarious reasons. Anyway, apart from SoUE and a little bit of PotC, I saw some Edward Scissorhands, I saw Corpse Bride, I saw Sleepy Hollow (as previously mentioned)...I probably saw a little bit of Secret Window, although I didn't think much about it at the time, which is kind of weird now that I think about it; there are some pretty strong parallels between those two stories, so as I think about it now I feel like I should have made more associations between the two. And then at one point Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall were on screen singing together, and I thought, "Hey, it's Snape and Wormtail!" Not that Alan Rickman was very Snape-ish; in fact, of all of his former characters, the one I was most reminded of just by looking at him was the Metatron from Dogma, which is strange because the two characters are not remotely similar. Watching Sweeney Todd, I spent a lot of time mentally referring to Timothy Spall's character as "Wormtail" whereas the actual Wormtail character I usually refer to as Peter Pettigrew, but "Wormtail" was such a fitting name for Beadle Bamford that I derived a great deal of enjoyment calling him "Wormtail". Actually, I thought Beadle Bamford's look would have been a bit more appropriate for Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter movies than what they did; I don't mean that they should have put him in 19th century dress, but just made him be kind of scraggly and unkempt without making him literally rat-like. But whatever.
Goodness me, it's nigh upon midnight again, and I still haven't added all the links to this entry I want to, so while I could probably say more about it, I guess I'll wrap it up for now. To sum up, it's certainly not the feel-good movie of the year, nor is it the traditional musical (I turned on the TV tonight and saw the The Sound of Music was on, and it just made me laugh), but it's a really well-done movie-musical and movie in its own right. If you don't like The Sound of Music, you would probably like Sweeney Todd; if you do like The Sound of Music, I don't know what to tell you.