Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

  • 2008-02-13
  • by Tim Ochser

Hair-raising: Johnny Depp stars in this macabre musical as a homicidal barber, weilding his razor as his weapon of choice.

Director: Tim Burton
What is it about London? In recent years there has been a profusion of films projecting twee gothic fantasies onto it. Having lived there nearly all my life, I can safely say there is nothing remotely gothic about that city. Just try setting a twee gothic fantasy in an area like Peckham or Elephant and Castle without the aid of CGI.
But director Tim Burton is a man obsessed with gothic fantasies. "Sweeney Todd" must be his umpteenth by now, and I must confess I found it an exhausting and enervating ordeal. It's getting hard to know where one "Corpse Bride" ends and another "Sweeney Todd" begins.

The biggest problem with this film is it's a musical adapted from Stephen Sodenheim's eponymous production. There is something intrinsically deranged about musicals: all that singing and dancing and exuberant orchestration simply isn't natural.
"Sweeney Todd" is a relentless bombardment of musical bombast and lyrical inanity. Song after dreary song assaults you in a mix of mock-cockney vaudeville and booming-voiced Broad-way. From Helena Bonham Carter's Miss Lovett blaring out "The Worst Pies in London" to the ridiculous spectacle of Johnny Depp's Sweeney Todd serenading his barber's razor, it's enough to make you weep.

I read somewhere that the film left out a lot of songs from the original Broadway musical. Given that the film had the effect of making me feel like I'd just undergone a lobotomy, I can't even imagine the extent of brain damage I might experience sitting through the entirety of the musical.
And all the characters are at it. The evil Judge Turpin, the good-hearted Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), the virtuous and buxom Johanna (Jayne Wisener): they can't open their mouths without bursting into song.
I have nothing personal against the story of Sweeney Todd. It's a fine story, as stories go, with some gratifyingly dark and macabre elements. But I see no good reason why it should be turned into a film of a Broadway musical. And no, there is not a trace of irony in it, or at least not any irony of substance.

Hollywood has a curiously complicit relationship with the musical having spawned this deranged genre back in some non-existent golden era. Last year the unspeakably awful "Dreamgirls" was up for all sorts of awards and this year Johnny Depp has a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his all-singing, all-butchering turn as Sweeney Todd. Musicals are murder alright.
Opens Feb. 15 in Estonia, Feb. 22 in Latvia and Feb. 29 in Lithuania

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