I have to admit I'm not one for musicals. But with the recent renaissance of films like "Chicago," "Moulin Rouge," "Hairspray," and "Phantom of the Opera," the musical film has made a gigantic comeback to the big screen.
The new Tim Burton film "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is based upon the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical. But its history goes well beyond the Great White Way.
The first telling of the murderous barber goes back to 19th Century London. Thomas Prest, a popular writer of the era would pluck true stories from The Times and then have them printed in pennies (magazines sold for a penny). Sweeney Todd could arguably be found in one such publication called "The People's Periodical" in November 1846.
Since then, this macabre tale filled with lore has been made into films and then Sondheim's musical starring Angela Lansbury ("Murder, She Wrote") and Len Cariou which came to the stage in 1979. In 1998, Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley starred in a version that aired on the BBC.
As the story goes, Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) is falsely accused of a crime and sent away for over a decade. During his departure the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) pines for his beautiful wife and young daughter, Johanna.
Returning to London a completely different man, we are introduced to Sweeney Todd, a man with revenge in his heart. With the help of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), the maker of some of London’s worst meat pies, they devise a bloody good plan to get even with every man who took Barker’s idyllic life away.
The dark, almost monochromatic canvas that Burton uses comes to life with vivid caricatures portrayed by Depp, Bonham Carter, Rickman, Timothy Spall (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), Sacha Baron Cohen (“Borat”) and newcomers to the big screen Jayne Wisener (Johanna), Ed Sanders (Toby), and Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony).
Depp is at the top of his game after another jaunt as Capt. Jack Sparrow in this year’s earlier hit “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”. Probably one of the best actors of his generation, Depp has only added another successful notch into his acting resume with this exuberant, dark, and melancholy performance that demonstrates his singing ability. Bonham Carter, who is also director Burton’s girlfriend, had the most difficult musical part to play with fast passages and a high soprano key. While none of the key actors have a musical background, it would be hard to tell. Arguably they could jump from Hollywood to Broadway without a second glance.
Rickman’s portrayal of evil continues in this role as Judge Turpin. Looking wearied and in much need of a shave, Turpin imprisons Barker’s daughter with the help of Spall’s character “Beadle Bamford”. Probably the most out of his comfort zone, Rickman seemed strained while singing, of course that could have been the Spandex pants holding him in.
It’s hard to find a bad Tim Burton film going through his resume except for maybe “Planet of the Apes,” which coincidentally is where he met Bonham Carter. “Sweeney Todd” has only put him in the higher echelon of directors with a niche for creative and great film-making. Not for the squeamish or faint-of-heart, “Sweeney Todd” turns the musical genre on its head. And really, “Sweeney Todd” is just a horror flick, but it’s a successful, unconventional slasher flick with a great score and cast that is still amazing audiences nearly two centuries from its dark origins.