Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nitpicking Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, 2007

**Lots of bitching and minor spoilers to follow. You done been warned!**

I don't think you could call me a musical geek. Save for my delight in Busby Berkeley spectacles and Gene Kelly-era shenanigans, along with a middle school obsession with Phantom of the Opera (it was, like, so deep!), a lot of modern Broadway stuff leaves me cold and uncomfortable. Especially these days, when they try to cover up the cheese with laughable self-seriousness. Basically, once the 1960s got fully under way, the genre lost a lot of its zing.

Sweeney Todd is an exception, though. True, when handled incorrectly it can be just as ridiculously self-serious as any musical out today (a point I'm about to explore with the movie), but when it's done right, you really see what Stephen Sondheim was going for.

When I was young I took singing lessons, and I remember that when I first sang "Green Finch and Linnet Bird," I thought, hm. Pretty song. What's it from? Oh, Sweeney Todd. That musical about cannibals. Wait, whaaaa?

So, I looked it up and kind of fell in love with it.

Macabre comedy (Macabredy?) is key to this Grand Guignol piece of ridiculousness, otherwise you lose the whole spirit of it. For all that I've read a great deal of criticism about it, perhaps my favorite performance I've seen of Sweeney is the DVD of the 1982 tour starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury as Todd and Mrs. Lovett. The cast in general is loopy and overblown, which is exactly how you can get away with singing such melodramatic material. So much of the dialogue is tongue-in-cheek, mocking yet at the same time celebrating the Penny Dreadfuls Sondheim and playwright Christopher Bond took inspiration from.

The most deplorable part of Burton's film treatment is the lack of dark humor, which you think would be a natural for him.

Let's break down my issues with this movie:

1. The casting. What breaks my heart about movie musicals these days is that seasoned Broadway actors are so seldom given the chance to show off on the big screen anymore. Because musicals are considered a kiss of death to Hollywood producers nowadays, apparently the only way a director can get their film off the ground is to cast big names. This. Sucks. Sorry, everyone, but Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter? They cannot sing. Depp can do a passable "David Bowie With Slight Laryngitis" imitation, but that's it. I mean, I know Lansbury doesn't have the most conventionally gorgeous pipes herself, but at least her voice has character and power. Bonham Carter's does not.

Which leads to my biggest problem: Bonham Carter. Or more correctly....

 2. Bonham Carter's characterization, and the characterizations in general. Hers is lacking in power and humor. Most people love Bonham Carter, but I must admit she's not one of my favorites, usually. In my mind she tries too hard in most of her roles to play the moody, cryptic type, and she just ends up coming across stiff and lackluster. She was pretty badass in Fight Club, I will admit, mostly because I think her Marla is almost a parody of that type of role, and she reveals a little more vulnerability by the end, along with Ed Norton. Basically, Fight Club finally gives her a chance to breathe in one of her roles. She was all right as Queen Elizabeth in The King's Speech, but quite frankly, that part didn't require any heavy lifting on her part, outside of being King Charles' loving support system.

But her Mrs. Lovett is just pitiful in my opinion. Yet I can't really blame her. I was all ready to when I first saw the movie, but after doing my research, apparently Burton himself told her to scale down the spunky comedy in her interpretation. @#:AHDFDDWew?!??! Look, I know one of the chief concerns a director has when transferring a musical to the screen is cutting down the broadness of the piece, since on the big screen, that can be overwhelming and corny. But at the same time, I think anyone going into a movie musical has the ability to adjust expectations from "This is a slice of life piece of realism" to "Oh, hey, the characters are going to sing. Probably not going to be the most realistic thing I've ever seen, but what the heck, probably worth a chuckle."

And if Burton was truly concerned about cutting down the wackiness (though at his best that was Burton's chief charm!), he could have at least let Bonham Carter break loose, because heaven knows Depp is dreary enough. Not a hint of melodramatic humor at all in his Sweeney, just puh-puh-poker faced and grim, with an inappropriate level of serious intensity. You know what? That's fine, so long as Mrs. Lovett makes up for it with her zaniness. Someone way back on my beloved IMDb boards put it well, that Mrs. Lovett should be the Kurt Weill-bawdy-bar singer to Todd's morose Wagnerian anti-hero. This contrast works not only in lifting the movie's tone, but also demonstrates what's great about their dynamic: for all Lovett's misplaced infatuation, she just doesn't get Todd. They both have the creepy bloodlust, true, and they unite beautifully for A Little Priest, but that's all they share. Not the basis for a good relationship, and why Mrs. Lovett is so hilarious is because she totally thinks it is.

So of course for the gloomy fangirls who want to be Helena Bonham Carter, Burton and screenwriter John Logan take her "love" seriously. Pleugh. Not only is Bonham Carter far too conventionally attractive for the role, but her sad eyes watching Depp's Todd with sincere yearning, untouched by madness, kills any dark comedy of the situation right there. It's not even tragicomic. Not even tragic. Just annoying and unnecessary, since we already have a serious love story in Todd's feelings for his lost Lucy. In the original musical, Sondheim makes it clear that not even Johanna and Anthony, the two ingenues, are to be taken so seriously.

 And here we are at another example of Burton missing the mark: Johanna and Anthony. Okay, okay, if you want to make Todd and Lovett parched and steeped in darkness, at least give us some light comedy in the form of those two adolescent space cadets, Todd's blonde daughter and that Dudley Do-Right of a sailor. True, Betsy Joslyn in the 1982 DVD definitely went too far making Johanna a caricature, since every musical needs a balance between parody and sincerity (even though often that's a pretty pukey combination). Cris Groenendaal was just about perfect.

So what does Burton do? Makes them even flatter than his Todd and Lovett, since, hey, Jayne Wisener (Johanna) and Jamie Campbell Bower (Anthony) aren't Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, so get the f$&k out of the shot, will you? This is his biggest disservice, the way he pushes aside these two young and obviously talented newcomers in order to squeeze in more scenes of Depp and Bonham Carter brooding. And the youngsters are not very well directed when they are onscreen. I admit that Wisener, though in possession of a well trained voice, just might not be much of an actress. However, you think Burton could have gotten a better expression out of her face than the total blank slate she wears when she thinks she's about to be murdered in one of the last scenes.

Johanna gets the biggest shaft of all. Even her triumphant moment in Fogg's Asylum, when she unknowingly does her papa proud by shooting Fogg when Anthony wimps out, is taken away from her in the film.

3. And let's talk about the songs that are cut. The bulk of them are Johanna and Anthony's. "Green Finch" loses most of its verses, "Ah, Miss" is taken out, and the worst crime of all is the loss of the "Kiss Me" duets. Those encapsulate the dumb teenager aspect of their dynamic that's very sweet at the same time. A lot of supporters of the film will go, "Well, no one really cares about Johanna and Anthony anyways, so big loss!" Yeah, their characters are ridiculous and queasy, but they're supposed to be. They provide a happy ending to the musical, and Johanna is a driving motivation to a lot of the characters. It's important the two are done right, and they most emphatically are not done right here. They're sapped of any energy or interest.

Theirs aren't the only songs to be butchered. First of all, we're missing The Ballads, because God Forbid a musical movie have some of the framing device of an actual musical. People have talked to death about the folly in cutting them, so what I'll focus on is how strange it is Burton takes out the songs but keeps in the theme. You can't have your cake and eat it too, Burton! Makes no sense! "Ladies in their Sensitivities" likewise makes no sense, because the whole part where the Beadle actually sings those words is taken out, seeing as Timothy Spall (though his oily creepiness is great) probably couldn't sing the notes needed. Man, think how rad someone like Nathan Lane would have been in the role. Oh, well! Nathan Lane wasn't in Sleepy Hollow, now was he?

"God, That's Good!" suffers a similar fate. Why? Because the lyrics "God, That's Good" are sung by the chorus of customers, and, well, Burton didn't want to film a chorus of singers. Well. Okie-doke, then. Why bother, really? All this musical nonsense is so tiring, after awhile. Hey, let's get a shot of Depp glowering into the camera! More! More!

"By the way, I was being sarcastic!"
"Well, duh."

And despite all these cuts, Mrs. Lovett's filler song "Wait" is left in untouched. Hm.

So, I've harped on and on about what I didn't like in the movie, so was there anything I did? Sure.

1. The flashback sequences. We're actually given a color palette that isn't grayish blue! There's a nice, eerie nightmare feeling to them, where everything's a bit off in the bright color scheme, that better captures the original musical's atmosphere. And I like seeing more of the young Lucy, since her limited presence is one of the disadvantages of the stage.

All the fangirls hate Lucy, none more so than the Burton fangirls who, like I mentioned above, want to be Helena Bonham Carter and want to make out with Johnny Depp. And on top of all that, Lucy's a blonde! Cardinal sin to our Hot Topic youth! The intense detestation of her character is mind-boggling. Yeah, I can get behind pettily hating the pretty blonde meself, since there are few characters I loathe more than Leila Kalomi in the This Side of Paradise episode of Star Trek.  But I tend to be a stinker, and almost unconsciously gravitate toward whoever's the underdog in the public eye. These days, it's the fresh-faced ingenue. The public doesn't have time for the type anymore. They're clingy, useless, blah blah blah. So of course, I've been digging that type more than, say, recent characters like Bonham Carter's interpretation of Lovett. Let's face it, characters like her are honestly just as clingy and pining as the worst ingenue, but they get away with it in this more sassy and cynical day and age because they do it with, well, sass and cynicism.

But damn, Lucy mother-effing suffers. More than anyone else in the musical, in my opinion. She's not some twit who wanders in and steals Todd away from Lovett. She was married to him, had a kid, and then her husband was taken away and she was gang-raped and driven to suicide (well, let's be fair, according to Mrs. Lovett). Look, I love Mrs. Lovett as a hilariously demented sidekick. Not as a serious love interest, heck no. And I've read some seriously appalling comments about how "Lucy is just as bad as Judge Turpin, because she poisons herself instead of looking after Johanna." Ohhh boy, does that make my head spin. First of all, that is not as bad as gang-rape, any way you slice it. And no, I don't condone suicide, but I'd challenge any of us to think straight after going through what she did. My guess is she probably convinced herself in her unhinged mind that Johanna would be better off without her. Probably didn't predict Judge Turpin would swoop down and adopt 'er!

Anyways, I've been sidetracked. Uhhh...the flashback sequences! Yes! Quite good. Laura Michelle Kelly, though perhaps not as classically beautiful as one would have liked in a Lucy, exudes a genuine warmth that makes her likable. We feel the injustice she suffers, and I can't see how anyone wouldn't sympathize with her throughout. In a few short, silent scenes, she's memorable.

 2. The "By the Sea" sequence is well done, if it wasn't for Bonham Carter's weak voice spoiling the boisterous mood. But the outlandishly skewered settings and costumes are brilliant, one of the few scenes that illustrates Mrs. Lovett's funtime insanity.

3. As always, Colleen Atwell does well in the costuming department, though Mrs. Lovett's dresses sometimes veer too much toward the aforementioned Hot Topic demographic.

4. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin. Man can do very little wrong. The film could have used more of him, though I understand why they cut the second "Johanna" song. After all, so do a lot of the stage productions. Sacha Baron Cohen surprisingly did quite right by his singing, though strangely, I was surprised how restrained his Pirelli was. I like the sinister undertone, but still feel like he could have been even funnier.

5. Changing Toby from a Faulknerian Man-Child (as The Onion would say) into a little boy. Ed Sanders has an angelic voice that, quite frankly, totally outsings Bonham Carter in "Not While I'm Around." Making him a little boy is easier to understand than having him as a grown man, because it's never quite explained if he really is even impaired, though he certainly acts childish. Then again, he's very silver-tongued in "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir." What is his story, anyhow? Actually, the same goes for a child Toby, too: why would Pirelli hire a small boy to sing about losing and growing hair? Toby's just kind of a weird, unrealized character.

Well, look at that! Five things I liked, versus the three above I didn't! Um, that still doesn't mean I like the movie more than I disliked it. No, I still was mostly disappointed.

Look. Let me defend myself, o fanatical Burton worshipers. I like Burton at his best: Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands (can't watch without crying), the brilliant Ed Wood, and my very beloved Nightmare Before Christmas. But as you see, all four of those have an insane comic intensity, which is totally lacking in Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd just feels HEAVY. Not as in, "She's so....(guitar solo)....HEAVAAAAAAY!", but as in, "ugh, I'm exhausted by all this dreary-ass, miserable stuff that's happening, kill me now" heaviness.

And I know a film adaptation is of course going to be different from a staged musical. That's good. Why see a filmed play when you can just see a play? There are ways these days. Films open up the action, make it seem more immediate. But really? I don't see any reason to mess with the tone too much. Scale it down from someone standing with jazz hands in a spot light, but keep the comedy and the energy, super please.

And sooooo many people have harped on and on about how Sondheim was totally there during the casting process, and totally gave the thumbs-up for Bonham Carter and Depp. Eh, well, whatever. Who knows what really went on. Maybe he saw Bonham Carter before Burton told her to tone down her Lovett, back when she was trying to make the mad baker likable and kooky. Either way, though, I don't know what makes everyone automatically assume Sondheim's a casting expert.Yeah, he wrote the libretto and the music, but he stepped back and let Harold Prince direct and do the casting for the original London and (unless I'm wrong) Broadway version. I figure Sondheim recognized his limitations. After all, Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for Holly Golightly, not Audrey Hepburn. I read the book, and I do not see Monroe at all in his descriptions of Holly. Hepburn, yes (actually, more than either of them, I see Tuesday Weld. But I think it's been established by now what a lunatic fan of hers I am). When a director is showing you his girlfriend and his best friend, and it's only a screentest out of context, you might just be unconsciously driven to give them the okay before you really know how they'll do in the long-run. Maybe he was thrilled by their finished performances, who knows. But I wasn't. So there, blogosphere! What's it to ya?

I've tried looking at the movie from fresh eyes, like someone who didn't know the musical. Maybe I'd have been more impressed. But something about Depp's rigidity and Bonham Carter's droopiness, not to mention their lousy singing, just kept the whole thing from being any fun. And as you can tell by now, I like my macabre fun (dude I totally saw 1968's Dracula Has Risen From The Grave last night and it was sooooo good!). A musical, whether it be onstage or on film, should at least be fun.

All this makes me slightly nervous about the upcoming Dark Shadows movie, but I'm cheered by the fact that Seth Grahame-Smith--author of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter--is penning the tale, not John Logan. Now I'm only fretting it will be too tongue-in-cheek. Oh dear, oh dear, sniff! Then I remember Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Chloe Moretz, and Jackie Earle Haley are in it (with cameos from the original cast and maybe even Christopher Lee!), and I feel better about the world. Burton needs a sturdy screenplay and an equally sturdy cast to come off. He's no Hitchcock who could make a great film even with John Gavin as the steady.

I would like to conclude by saying I've never felt more like the Comic Book Guy than I do having written this...shall I say....snippy?....griping? "Worst. Movie Adaptation of a Victorian Cannibal Musical. Ever."


  1. Macabredy is the greatest thing I've heard in awhile, and as someone who loves Sweeney Todd I completely agree with you that the movie is pretty weak. I do like Burton, (love Ed Wood) and like Depp and Carter as well, but it's just not cast well. It really does miss the whole point.

  2. As someone who saw the movie without seeing the play, and who adores the Burton-Depp-Carter triangle (usually) I was also disappointed in the final product. The minute Depp and Carter let loose those first few notes I felt a pang of sympathy for all those musical theater types given the brush off. (Like Julie Andrews' Eliza Doolittle going to Audrey Hepburn--I still love you dear Audrey.) There is also, as you mentioned: the lack of embracing the dark humor, yo. You'd think Burton would know better by now.

    I will have to look for the 1982 DVD. Definitely.

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