Sweeney Todd - the Demon Barber of Fleet StreetMovie musicals are usually bright, cheery affairs. Devotees of these should be wary then because it was clear from the outset that Tim Burton’s adaption of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 musical was going to be anything but bright and cheerful. The Tony Award winning musical is a tale of betrayal and bloody (very bloody) revenge. Wrongly accused of a crime by Judge Turpin, who covets his wife, barber Benjamin Barker returns from the prison stay in Australia to his home in London as Sweeney Todd, a ghost-like figure of his former self. He finds that things have changed: His wife was taken and abused by Turpin who now holds his daughter Joanna as his ward. Renting out the studio over Mrs. Lovett’s Pie Shop in Fleet Street, he goes on a killing spree, providing the necessary fresh meat for her pies which prove an immediate success with London’s citizens. At the same time young sailor Anthony who befriended Todd on the voyage falls in love with Joanna and intends to rescue her from Turpin’s clutches. Not to spoil anything but it all ends in a horrific bloodbath. It’s an interesting if very disgusting premise, taking a musical and placing it into the gory depths of the horror genre.

Tim Burton’s actor of choice is always Johnny Depp whose Sweeney is incredibly brooding. What’s clear is that he’s channelling Jack Sparrow in terms of voice and acting style but that works very well in this instance. His voice is rather thin and not what you might expect from someone who has to sing several songs and difficult ones at that. But this thinness too works very well as Todd is as much a demon or ghost as he is a real person. While some of the songs require him merely to speak in tune, others like “My Friends” allow some breathing space. Helena Bonham-Carter’s singing impresses also, her songs are far more difficult and she hits all the notes perfectly. “By the Sea” is a particular cracker in that sense but she makes it all look incredibly easy. All the other cast members also perform well – Alan Rickman as Turpin, Timothy Spall as the Beadle, Jamie Campbell-Bower and Jayne Wiesner as the star-crossed lovers and one hilarious cameo from Sacha Baron-Cohen as sham barber Adolfo Pirelli, clearly relishing every second of faux Italian accent. Another standout is the young Ed Sanders as Toby who can sing extremely well.

Indeed the shortcomings are less the fault of the cast or even Burton but lie within Sondheim’s musical. The plot never really goes anywhere, it just knows its premise and wants us to recoil at the gore. This is so overdone with fake blood that finding part of a finger in a meat pie is unlikely to elicit even a shudder from the audience at the end. Sweeney himself just sits in his lair slitting throats waiting for Turpin to appear for his revenge, and the whole “By the Sea” sequence bears no relation whatever to the plot. As the screenplay already drops songs like “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” from the original, maybe this could have been done away with as well. Thus, what begins as a gruesomely stylish insight into the downsides of the Victorian period, all becomes rather pointless towards the end. Yes the art-direction quite rightly got an Oscar nomination – it all looks fabulously disgusting – but on the whole the story just doesn’t have enough bite to enthral us. Anyone who can’t see blood of course shouldn’t go near the theatre when this is on.

Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street OSTThe best thing that Burton ever did for his “Sweeney Todd” was to employ Sondheim himself to look after the score. Sondheim painstakingly reworked all of it, orchestrating for a 78 piece orchestra rather than the original 27 parts. The result of this is astounding with real depth to the cues, both underscore and songs. Right from the opening organ statement we know that this is going to be darkly epic. Songs like “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest” really shine in the film and on album as well. They just get better and better when divorced from the images. Two versions exist, a regular album and a collector’s edition with a few songs more. Very, very enjoyable.

Despite mostly positive reviews from other critics, I find that the tale of Sweeney Todd gets tiring even if the songs do not. Tim Burton and Co. have clearly put in a lot of effort and are to be commended for it, but all the best effects in the world can’t compensate for the lack of plot development underneath. It’s a wonderfully gothic gore opera in a way but if you seek some of Burton’s best work, this film isn’t among them.

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I’m not generally a fan of horror or gore but I sure do love these songs! What did you think of Mr T? Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts or feedback. You can also follow me on Twitter if you were so inclined. Until next time, have a spooktcular Halloween!

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