The Sound of Musicals: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
If I asked five random people to describe musicals in one word, I can almost guarantee that more than two of them would say “cheesy.”
And they wouldn't be completely wrong.
While many of cinema’s greatest films are themselves musicals, it’s believed by many that the art-form is best experienced on the stage as opposed to the screen. Many live-action musical films consist of characters randomly bursting out into song in ways that feel unauthentic, and then again some of them nail the tone perfect (see pretty much any Disney musical ever). But, there is one American musical that no critic could watch and even dream of using the word “cheesy,” and that is Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Burton adapted the Stephen Sondheim stage show for the screen in 2007, bringing in his long-time lead collaborator Johnny Depp to as the revenge-stricken barber who wreaks havoc on London. Today, the concept of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp is excruciating (mainly because of the very bad Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows), but when this film released a decade ago, it was a match made in heaven (or hell, depending on which of those two best fit this team of entertainers).
Of course Burton would choose Depp, who so famously played the weird and bizarre Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane, Ed Wood, and whether you like it or not, Willy Wonka. This team’s rendition of Sweeney Todd is probably the best any on-screen pairing can ever get, with Burton completely and totally nailing the tone in ways I still can’t believe. In many ways, this feels like a Tim Burton film (the opening credits, the cinematography, the excess of clearly-fake blood), but it other ways, it feels like a film from a director I’ve followed my entire life who has been making musicals for years that I’ve never discovered. This feels like a director right at home, but in reality it’s a talented artist experimenting with an untouched medium.
The story follows Benjamin Barker, a working barber who lost his wife to the hands of Judge Turpin, played by the late Alan Rickman, an evil man who longs for Barker’s wife and goes as far as sending him away for a crime of he didn't commit. Years later, he returns to London under the assumed name of Sweeney Todd, who begins a bloodbath of revenge as he murders his customers and uses their bodies to help the meat-pie shop on the floor below, run by Mrs. Lovett, played by Helena Bonham-Carter.
It’s a sick and sadistic movie, but one that puts any comments of musicals always being lighthearted to rest with ease. Anyone who has seen a Tim Burton film knows what to expect here, and the bloodshed is not eased back because of the genre’s reputation. Instead, Burton remains faithful to the stage adaptation and lets the viewers see the violence, only the screen lets him go crazier than the stage ever could.
What’s mostly impressive about it is the music itself, which I find to be better and more memorable than the stage cast’s version, a rarity among adaptations. I love Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables and I think all the actors did well with the music, but when I go back and want to listen to the songs, I’m going straight for the Broadway cast. Surprising as it may sound, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter have topped any stage recording I’ve heard, and I still listen to the soundtrack quite often when I want some gloom and violent depression in my life.
Sweeney Todd is one of Tim Burton’s finest films, and for my money, it’s one of the best musicals you’ll see on the screen.