(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Johnny Depp and Tim Burton join forces again in a big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical thriller “Sweeney Todd.” Depp stars in the title role as a man unjustly sent to prison who vows revenge, not only for that cruel punishment, but for the devastating consequences of what happened to his wife and daughter. When he returns to reopen his barber shop, Sweeney Todd becomes the Demon Barber of Fleet Street who “shaved the heads of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard from again.”
– From Sweeney Todd‘s official site
The reason I own Sweeney Todd is because I can’t believe it got made. I’m pretty sure I saw it in theaters three times, mostly to confirm its existence. I felt invigorated by that existence because its audacity was unreal. Todd made me feel like anything was possible in the studio system. It made me feel like I could do anything. Tim Burton set this standard I wanted to live up to: “Just do whatever the hell you want.”
In the end there were other reasons I liked the film, but not the ones you’d expect. Do I like slasher films? No. Do I like musicals? Not really. Do I like Tim Burton movies? Well, that’s complicated, perhaps now more than ever. After seeing Todd I owned up to the fact that Burton had been an unmistakable influence on my childhood and onward, creating images that have stayed with me for years. But a Burton fan? I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why later.
As far as bringing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd to the screen is concerned, Burton set out to do something that was nearly impossible to do in Hollywood. But he did it. I have no idea how. I’ve thought time and time again about how he must have pitched the project to studio executives, because here are the hurdles he had to overcome.
1) “I’m going to do a musical.”
Studios hate musicals because they’re financially risky. Just ask Baz Luhrmann and the hell he had to go through so Moulin Rouge (2001) would be taken seriously. Also, this was going to be a Tim Burton musical, so it’s not like execs would be saying, “marketing this will be a cinch.”
2) “It’s going to be a slasher musical with tons of blood. Like, DROWNING in blood. Like tons of dead bodies and spraying all over the wall blood.”
Oh, so this is going to be an R-Rated musical. Holy shit. That has never been done before. In fact that simply doesn’t exist, or at least it doesn’t exist when it’s being funded by Warner Bros.
3) “I want Johnny Depp in the lead. He has never sung in anything. And no, you can’t hear him sing before you cast him. No, not even before we begin shooting.”
Seriously? What the hell?
4) “In fact, none of the known names in this movie will be professional singers.”
True: Helena Bonham Carter, Toby Jones and Alan Rickman had never sung on film. The exception was Sacha Baron Cohen, who apparently had some sort of background in musical theater. He auditioned for Burton by performing all of Fiddler On The Roof in under five minutes and got the role on the spot.
5) “Also, three of the main characters will be played by complete unknowns, like people I pull out of nowhere and have never been onscreen before.”
The “kids” in this film were plucked out of obscurity, making Todd their film debuts. Jayne Weisner was discovered by a talent scout while performing in a school play. Jamie Campbell Bower had only one TV credit before getting cast. As for Ed Sanders, Todd is his only film credit. He opted to enroll in college and study sound engineering instead of acting.
6) “Oh, and I’m not changing the ending.”
Keep in mind the story ends with a young boy slitting the protagonist’s throat, who stares blankly into space while he bleeds to death and… scene. Credits roll.
Despite this, Sweeney Todd was made.
In watching it again for this entry I was struck by these obstacles even more. And there’s something else. Todd is darker than I remembered. It’s really dark. Even its humorous moments are as black as pitch. I’m not just referring to the plot, but the details. It’s what most audiences and reviews don’t even address. There is rape, child abuse, pedophilia, exploitation and various perversions teeming at the edges of the film, part of the action but… not. It’s kind of strange.
Most of these issues are supplied by the villains in the film, but since Todd is such a villain himself they are hardly the focus. The throat-slittings and cannibalism kind of overshadow everything else. Judge Turpin is particularly disgusting, but since he’s played by Alan Rickman it’s easier for audiences to forgive him. I think Rickman could play Hitler and get sympathy.
But, really. At one point he sentences a child to death, for God’s sake.
This is just a day in the life for Turpin, and in fact the entire universe of Todd. Just about everyone and their worldview is awful, culminating in Todd’s own: “There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit / And it’s filled with people who are filled with shit / And the vermin of the world inhabit it / But not for long.”
Which brings me to Depp as Todd. I’ve never seen Depp inhabit a character so unpleasant, so possessed by rage that you think his face is going to cave in at any moment. He plays a man so consumed with avenging his wife and daughter he neglects to help his daughter and accidentally murders his wife. He’s in a master class of insanity and failure. In the meantime he cuts a bunch of peoples’ throats and sings while he’s doing it.
And you know what the crazy thing is? It works. All of it. The strangest thing about Todd is that in spite of its nihilism each performer brings a humanity to their actions. I felt something for each character no matter what evil they had already done or were currently committing. What’s more, most of this is communicated through singing, using untrained voices the A.V. Club described as “grounded in the grit and grime of a world that grinds up the innocent and the guilty alike.” Technically the whole thing is ludicrous. It’s a testament to Sondheim, Burton and the cast that it succeeds.
Unfortunately Todd marks the last film of Depp-Burton collaboration where I felt like I appreciated and understood what they were doing. Alice In Wonderland (2010) was such a crushing disappointment I prefer not to talk about it, and the trailer for their upcoming Dark Shadows (2012) dashed any expectations I had for it. I have been telling people I’ll just be staying at home and re-watching The Addams Family (1991) when it comes out.
It’s also strange to be writing this during what I’ve termed “Johnny Depp Backlash.” He was one of those performers who seemed untouchable, but when I hear about him now I just think of one of Buster Keaton’s quotes: “It only takes about two bad pictures in a row to put the skids under you.”
I can only hope that the skids won’t last forever. It would be interesting to see Depp in something like Todd again. Something that shouldn’t work. Something unexpected and risky. Something where he is allowed to reinvent himself and surprise people. That is what has made his career successful in the first place, right?
If he did that, then flipped all of us off and retired I would be happy.