The challenge of making movie musicals is the “movie” part. You have to sell people bursting into song and dance on the screen accompanied by a non-diagetic orchestral score; there’s a disconnect there that stage shows don’t have to deal with. The stage is a floor for performers; the camera is a window into another reality. If it’s a reality where people sing and music randomly plays, great! But convincing us of that is the assignment. Pointing a motionless camera at lip-syncing actors doing a choreographed jig usually won’t do it, unless you’re trying to mock the genre a lá Francois Ozon.
The apparently Herculean task of turning a musical into a bona fide movie has in recent years claimed filmmakers as prolific as Joel Schumacher, Chris Columbus, and Adam Shankman. The recent Enchanted actually did a nice job with its one big song-and-dance number, recognizing that uniquely cinematic tools — things as simple as location changes and, uh, editing — can add real energy to what is otherwise just a large group of people pretending to sing and trying not to run into each other. I was unfamiliar with Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, but my hopes for Tim Burton’s adaptation were through the roof precisely because Burton understands film so well. This is a man who managed to make Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow into a riveting, magical thriller. Bring on The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
I was right, wouldn’t you know it. Sweeney Todd is a real musical and a hell of a movie, too. Burton does two things particularly well: first, in his care the songs make cinematic sense — he films them like scenes rather than production numbers, with occasional close-ups, pervasive atmosphere, and a sense of motion; there’s never the sense that we’re on a soundstage. Second, and relatedly, he allows them to propel the story forward instead of stopping it cold. Part of that is Sondheim’s doing, of course — I don’t know of another musical that balances plot and musical virtuosity as well as Sweeney — but Burton knows that it’s more important for the film to flow than for individual numbers to be spectacular or memorable. He’s looking to immerse rather than wow us.
As with most Burton efforts, the look of the film does a lot of the work. His London here, oddly enough, made me think back on The Golden Compass which at certain points tried to accomplish much the same thing: create a glum, otherworldly portrait of a long-ago city existing in a parallel movie universe. But where The Golden Compass succeeded only in assuring us that it did indeed cost over two hundred million dollars, Sweeney Todd‘s London is so real it’s enchanting and so authentically dangerous it’s upsetting. The film’s menace doesn’t come exclusively from the titular barber’s copious throat-slitting; I left the theater looking over my shoulder.
The plot is one of those grandiose, improbable, broad-brush pieces of storytelling that needs great actors and a vivid imagination to fill in the gaps. Depp is a terrific choice, of course, with his ineffable strangeness given weight and content by Sweeney’s rage. A fellow critic described his performance as “Edward Razorhands,” implying that Depp was doing his “usual” bizarro schtick, whatever that is. That struck me as astoundingly unfair, since I don’t think Depp has ever played anything with this much anger and grim determination. His Sweeney seems as heartbreaking and weirdly relatable as a merciless serial killer can possibly be, his vendetta against the world the logical conclusion, in some ways, of what most of us feel every now and again. The tragedy of the inevitable ending — here expressed with a simple fade to black rather than the show’s rendition of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” — hits hard.
Burton’s trademark black humor fits the movie particularly well. Consider the scene where Alan Rickman’s awful Judge Turpin sentences a rather unexpected defendant to hang for his incorrigible lawbreaking. It’s exactly the sort of hilariously distasteful gag you’d expect from Burton — see, e.g., Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, tiptoeing into a fearsome cave of some sort while shielding himself with a little boy, whom he shoves forward gingerly with one hand — but the laughter catches in your throat this time because, well, yeah, that would happen here. It plays vaguely like a joke, but it isn’t one any more than is the blood that virtually soaks this movie from the first frame to the last.
Sadly the price we pay for having the likes of Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in the lead roles is that we don’t get the benefit of professional singers, and Depp and Carter ultimately lose their two-hour wrestling match against Sondheim’s demanding melodies. Carter, in particular, strains her reed-thin voice to what must have been the breaking point, but to no avail. To this untrained ear, the only member of the cast with the sort of chops this sort of project demands is Jamie Campbell Bower in the part of Anthony Hope. The sub-par singing detracts from the film, as it must. Then again, the whole point is that Tim Burton is smart enough not to make Sweeney Todd about the songs. It’s about sadness, and anger, and the closest shave you’ll ever have…