A Certain Lack of Focus

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Demon Barber

I got a chance to see Sweeney Todd last week with Matt and my parents.

toddposterIt's always interesting to see a musical go to the movies. In my case I often see the movie version before I ever get a chance to see the "real" musical (and sometimes I never do) so I get to go in with no pre-conceptions. It's like not reading the book before seeing the movie; Jurassic Park was bound to be better if you never read it. I've done this with Evita, Chicago Rent, and Hairspray, just to name the most recent (and the ones that I can remember without much effort). In each case there was a great deal of hype before the movie, a whole bunch of: "How can they ever make it work?" And in each case I at least have been satisfied.

Sweeney Todd was a bit different, not because I didn't enjoy it, but because the film makers made no attempt to distinguish between the musical sections and the plot sections. They did this in the movie of Chicago for example, by turning the singing sections into sort of fantasized sections, where the characters are either performing or day dreaming. The musical aspect of Chicago was almost metaphorical. Evita and Rent didn't go this far, but the songs were certainly divided from the story. They were for emphasis rather than explanation perhaps. Even Hairspray, a full out townspeople dancing in the street parody, draws the line at actually putting the story into the music. Instead they give us: story story story... BIG MUSICAL NUMBER.

In Sweeney Todd it was immediately apparent that there would be none of this distinction. The conversation that begins the movie, held on a boat between Sweeney Todd and Anthony is sung. In fact spoken parts were comparatively rare in the movie and seemed to serve more as filler and transition rather than essential plot points. A bit of a switch for movie musicals: the songs were the story and the spoken parts were everything else.

razorI'm not sure how else it could have worked. The songs in this musical are so strong and striking that making them a secondary element would have seemed almost patronizing. One aesthetic complaint about the movie I have will sound a bit silly considering the context: there is something extremely disturbing watching people get their throat slit (even with the excessive Tim Burton blood to tell us it's a movie) once, much less repeatedly without pause. Matt laughed at me in the theater because no matter how many times Todd killed his customers, it took me by surprise. The story is about a murdering barber, so it's not like this should be unexpected, but I think my reasoning is sound, if he kills EVERYONE who gets on his chair, wouldn't someone eventually suspect. We did actually see him cut one man's hair, but if nine out of ten men never leave his barber's shop you'd think people would start to wonder. Still, it's a musical, so I guess I can't hold it to normal standards of logic.

The constant slashing of throats was effective however. (Spoiler ahead, skip to next paragraph if you don't want to know.) When we get to the end, and Todd returns from hunting Toby to find his daughter, disguised, I was actually convinced that he was going to kill her as well. The costumers did a fantastic job of making the girl look like the boy without any disguise beyond what could be reasonably believed.

jackThere's not too much I can say about the music since I'm not very musical, except that I loved it. The guy responsible for the music is the same person who wrote the music for Into the Woods, a satirical faerie tale musical The music from Into the Woods is a bit more traditional, but every once in a while it goes off on a wonderfully quirky direction that makes you sit up and listen, Sweeney Todd was full of these moments but the context is so different that although the similarity nagged me slightly as I watched, there's no chance of making the connection. The style actually works much better with this dark, angry singing, and Johnny Depp's rough, so-so singing voice is actually the perfect vehicle for the central part. I'm always surprised that celebrities can sing (I know I shouldn't be, for many it's a part of their training) but in addition to Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman and Helena Bonham Carter both do plausible or better jobs. Don't get me wrong, when I say Johnny Depp has a so-so voice and that the others do plausible jobs I'm not saying they couldn't carry a tune, or even that they weren't pleasant to listen to, I just suspect that if I'd gone to see the production in a Broadway theater (not that I can afford to go to see anything on Broadway) the singing would have had a different quality. Broadway quality or not, I loved everything about the music.

The quality of Depp's voice did have one interesting effect. Johnny Depp's voice changes with the characters he plays (mark of a good actor that) and this rough character is apparently similar enough to Jack Sparrow that the voice was identical. I couldn't help the occasional jarring thought that Sparrow'd seen better days. It doesn't help that it started on a boat (sorry, ship) I suppose.

On a similar note, Tim Burton's presence was a sort of constant obvious undercurrent. It's not that it didn't fit the play, it's that it fit so well that it almost didn't work.toddLet me explain that. If this film hadn't been directed by Tim Burton, the gothy darkness, the showy next to the gritty, and the sometimes cartooney gru, would have seemed to fit the story and movie just perfectly. But because I am familiar with Tim Burton, and because I LOVE Tim Burton, instead of thinking: "wow, that's very fitting," all I could think throughout was, "Wow, that's so Tim Burton." This isn't necessarily a bad thing, and it's certainly not the fault of Burton. In fact my favorite scene in this movie, which fit the movie beautifully, was very Tim Burton.

ricciIn a song where Mrs. Lovett (Carter) is daydreaming about what her life might be like if she and Sweeney Todd settled down together, the background and costumes switch from scene to scene while Mrs. Lovett and Toby dance around looking happy. Todd meanwhile, stays in prominent staging, snuggly on Mrs. Lovett's arm, with an unchanging zombie expression on his face. It works very well, both in expressing the ridiculousness of Mrs. Lovett's fantasy, and in disrupting what could otherwise be a fairly sappy disjointed area in the movie.

*Pics are linked, you know the deal.

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