Directed by Tim Burton
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 116 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
MSRP: $ 39.99
Release Date: April 1, 2008
Review Date: March 15, 2008
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is one of the undisputed masterpieces of the American musical theater. A melodramatic English horror tale outfitted with one of the most glorious and gloriously difficult scores in the Broadway canon, Sweeney Todd on stage isn’t quite an opera (though many opera companies have elected to stage this harrowing work), but the depth and range of its songs for the cast and a nearly never-ending undercurrent of baneful accompaniment make it a challenge for even the most expert theater companies.
Director Tim Burton has gathered two of his most frequent star collaborators, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, and despite neither of them being professional singers, has endeavored to mount a musical version of this notoriously problematic work. The result is quite surprisingly one of the best stage-to-screen musical adaptations ever achieved, a confident and accomplished reconception for the screen that even fans of the original stage work will likely cheer. It’s not quite perfect, and admirers of Sondheim’s singular achievement might howl about the cutting of songs, the alterations to the score, the elimination of the chorus, and the striking modulations of original keys to accommodate the vocal ranges of certain cast members. Still, it’s a real musical from beginning to end, and one that can stand with the best that have come to the screen in recent years.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is torn from his beautiful wife Lucy and baby daughter Johanna by the wickedly covetous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman). Sentenced to prison in far-away Australia, Barker manages to escape after fifteen years and returns to London hopefully to be reunited with his family and certainly to settle the score with the judge. Once there, however, he learns that his beloved Lucy is gone and that Johanna (Jayne Wisner) is now the ward of the evil judge, and what’s worse, is soon to be married to him. Taking the name Sweeney Todd to help disguise his identity while he works out his bloody revenge, Barker is aided by young sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) and Mrs. Nellie Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter), a pie shop owner of no distinction but who has designs on Barker for herself. The intrigues with all of the characters ebb and flow throughout the story leading to inevitably sad fates for most of them.
Sondheim has said on more than one occasion that he looked on the original production as the blackest of black musical comedies, and with this in mind, perhaps no director other than Tim Burton could have brought that kind of vision to a screen version of this masterpiece. It’s certainly cut from the same cloth as Sleepy Hollow, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Corpse Bride: brooding, baneful entertainments that slyly go over-the-top with their effects without losing sight of a central story being told amid all the moody, overpoweringly environmental tone. He mounts some sensational set pieces, too, with the montage of murder scenes set to the haunting “Johanna” and Mrs. Lovett’s surreal flight of fancy in “By the Sea” where the monochromatic look of the film breaks out into rich color for a few moments before swooping back into the sad, gloomy reality for them all.
Though none of the name stars is known as a singer, all acquit themselves proud with their singing chores. Depp, even without a fully supported baritone instrument, gets a surprising amount of feeling in his vocals. Good, too, are Alan Rickman as the venal judge and Sasha Baron Cohen as the wily rival barber Adolfo Pirelli whom Todd must best in a shaving contest to gain the judge’s attention (though Pirelli‘s melody lines have been modulated downward from their original tenor levels). Trained singers Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisner bring lyric sweetness and innocence to their singing making their youthful characters appealing amid all the squalor around them. And Edward Sanders as Pirelli’s and then Mrs. Lovett’s young assistant Toby is a real find, an engaging young actor with a fine voice that handles some tricky melodies with ease.
Which brings us to Helena Bonham-Carter’s Mrs. Lovett. The character was conceived as the welcome and necessary comic relief among the murderous mayhem and dark foreboding that make up the rest of the piece, and she‘s usually been played in a rather British musical hall style: broad in reactions and rather desperate to do anything to wheedle her way into Todd‘s affections. But Bonham-Carter has taken an inward approach to Mrs. Lovett, internalizing her longing in both speech and song to such an extent that the musical’s comic values are almost lost. In the quiet numbers like “Wait” and “My Friends,” this tentative approach isn’t damaging and in fact pairs well with Depp’s internal struggles, but in the broad numbers, “The Worst Pies in London,” the duet “A Little Priest,” and especially “By the Sea,” her big comic plea for attention and recognition for what she’s done to help him, the comedy is limp and underwhelming. A shame, too, because “A Little Priest” is a song that always brings down the house when performed with relish and enthusiasm. In this film version, it’s too internalized for the jokes to land with authority (and it doesn’t help that this was one of the numbers cut in half with some of the wittiest puns omitted).
Of the remainder of the score used in the film, the gorgeous melodies get a thorough and satisfying handling. The film score now has three exceptional ballads: “Johanna,” “Pretty Women,” and “Not While I’m Around,” and while the chorus’ title song, “City on Fire,” and Beadle Bamford’s “Ladies in Their Sensitivities” and “Parlor Songs” are all gone, we do still have the marvelous mood-setting “No Place Like London,” the sad backstory of the twisted love triangle “The Barber and His Wife,” and Sweeney’s electrifying mental collapse “Epiphany” which always brings that portion of the story to a most chilling and effective conclusion.
The two previous film versions of Sondheim musicals (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and A Little Night Music) were unhappy affairs, directed in ineffectual ways that warred with the material they were presenting. Sweeney Todd, despite a few problems, undoubtedly ranks as the most effective transcription of his work to the screen to date. For those who don’t mind a macabre movie musical with as much carnage as your average slasher film, Sweeney Todd is a diabolical delight.
The film’s 1.85:1 original aspect ratio is presented in a very strong anamorphic encoding. Sharpness is especially good, and even though most of the color has been desaturated for the setting of the proper doleful mood for the story, reds and blues come through just fine when necessary. The disc does struggle a bit with fine line structures such as a birdcage, some wrought iron, a pier, and the designs on Sweeney’s leather coat resulting in some marked aliasing in those moments. Blacks aren’t the blackest I’ve seen, but they’re more than adequate, and shadow detail registers well. The film is divided into 24 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is thrilling, an almost wall-to-wall musical assault on the senses that’s at times quite overpowering. Different instrumentation in the orchestrations is clearly heard in separate channels making for a feeling of total immersion in sound. The subwoofer gets as much of a workout in this film is in any big budget action thriller, and while all available channels are constantly in use for the music and some thunderous sound effects, the surrounds never overpower the singers whose lyrics are always easily discernable.
The first disc contains only one bonus, but it’s perhaps the best bonus in the set: Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd. Unlike the rather fluffy “making of” documentary on disc two, this one shows the actors recording their songs, being directed on the set during multiple takes, and commenting on their first experiences with making a musical. Sondheim, Burton, and producer Richard Zanuck also weigh in with opinions on the difficult task of making a musical work on film. It is in this featurette where we learn that Bonham-Carter’s internalized performance as Mrs. Lovett was completely Burton’s idea who prevented her from making it broader and funnier. This excellent anamorphic feature runs 26 minutes.
The second disc contains the majority of the bonus material.
Four of the stars of the film along with its director and producer take part in the Sweeney Todd Press Conference, November 2007. The press questions are mostly softballs, and the cast and director don’t come forward with anything of much depth or interest. They mostly seem reluctant to give much away about their craft. It’s in anamorphic widescreen and lasts 19½ minutes.
“Sweeney Todd Is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber” is a discussion about the origins of the legendary character and the ongoing debate about the possibility of his actual existence. The anamorphic feature runs 19½ minutes.
“Musical Mayhem: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd” is an 11½ minute anamorphic interview with composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The Oscar and Tony-winning genius describes how he first became interested in doing a musical version of the story and about its road to Broadway and then the movies. There are a few stills from the legendary original production but, alas, no footage of it.
“Sweeney’s London” is a 15½ minute featurette on conditions in the city in the mid-18th century that gave rise to the original penny dreadful story of the demon barber. Particular attention is paid to Fleet Street then and now in this anamorphic featurette.
“The Making of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is an entertaining if slightly incomplete EPK vignette on how the movie was cast and rehearsed, how the original stage score was cut for film, and a general overview of the costumes, production design, cinematography, and props. The anamorphic feature runs 23½ minutes.
“Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition” is an informative mini-history lesson on the traditions of Grand Guignol theater, and its macabre tradition dating back to 19th century Paris. The genre is brought up to the present day (mentioning Sweeney Todd only peripherally) to a Grand Guignol theater in San Francisco. This anamorphic featurette runs 18½ minutes.
“Designs for the Demon Barber” goes into somewhat more depth in describing the work that went into the costumes, production design, and set decoration for the film, in each case showing that the look for the movie was desaturated from the start before color timing took even more hue intensity away from the finished film. This anamorphic vignette runs 9 minutes.
“A Bloody Business” is an interesting featurette on how the extensive blood-letting in the film was rigged, particularly for the close-up slashings which are plentiful in the film’s second half. This anamorphic feature runs 8¾ minutes.
Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton endure a Moviefone Unscripted question and answer session which is in nonanamorphic letterbox and lasts for 10¾ minutes.
“The Razor’s Refrain” offers a medley of songs from the film’s soundtrack against a succession of stills from the film and behind-the-scenes shots of the cast and crew at work. The anamorphic feature runs 8½ minutes.
A black and white and color photo gallery is also offered which the viewer can step through.
The movie’s theatrical trailer (which really attempts to hide that the film is a musical) runs 2½ minutes and is in anamorphic widescreen.
Sweeney Todd would have been one of the last Broadway musicals I ever would have expected to see on the big screen, and yet here it is, brought to the movies with more skill and success than I would have ever thought possible. This 2-disc set is the one to get if you’re a fan of the material or of the actors involved in the project. A very good picture and superb sound make this a release that I highly recommend.