Saturday, December 22, 2007

When I was in high school, a junior, if memory serves, I was watching T.V. one evening, when I flipped by Bravo and stopped to watch a bit of a musical they were showing. That musical was Sweeney Todd, and while I'd missed most of the first half, I very quickly found myself fixated on this show, which was not quite like anything I'd ever seen before. They reran it later that day, in the dark of night, and I taped it, so that I could ultimately watch it more than I have probably watched just about anything else. It was a filmed performance of the Broadway show, with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, which apparently originally aired on PBS in 1982. I suppose what first grabbed me about the musical was the macabre subject matter and pitch-black take on human nature (well, okay, what FIRST got my attention was Lansbury--"So, just WHAT is the Murder, She Wrote lady putting into that pie?!"). And the music was absolutely fantastic, with an operatic scope, alternating between the beautiful and the visceral, and really put to shame the Broadway smashes with which I was more familiar (I used to love Les Miserables; the last time I listened to it, I was embarrassed for us both). And Sondheim's wit provided just enough of a safe space to keep the show from crushing me.

There was a lot artistically in Sweeney Todd to appeal to me. But I think my obsession with the show was also because I came to think of it as mine. I think sometimes an individual comes across a cultural artifact, so different from the media with which they are familiar, that they virtually fetishize the product, develop an obsession with it, as I did, partly due to its merits, and partly just to celebrate the serendipity by which this item was discovered, and one's horizons were widened (hope that's not too pretentious; I'm not quite sure how to say what I mean here). I'd stumbled upon it unawares, I'd never heard of it (I'd only barely heard of Sondheim), and my friends had never heard of it. And now I wanted it to become a fixture in my life. For close to two years, I watched it virtually daily. Not always in its entirety, but at least substantial segments--"Pretty Girls" through to "A Little Priest," say, or possibly through to Sweeney's version of "Johanna" (I would often just play that song over and over and over again). Most nights before I went to bed, that's what I watched. (It made me question my sanity--It can't be normal to watch the same thing this often, I would fret to myself) In college, the frequency diminished, but it was some time before the tradition died, and still I knew it wouldn't be long before I returned, for weeks, sometimes months, of obsessive viewing. There are other musicals (Urinetown, for instance) I love, but Sweeney Todd's special place in my psyche is, I feel it safe to say, permanent and unique.

So as you might imagine, news of a Sweeney Todd movie was difficult for me to deal with. Tim Burton presenting Sweeney Todd sounded like nothing short of perfect. But things can go wrong, and the thought of a bad Sweeney Todd movie was too much to bear. And even a good Sweeney Todd movie wouldn't be my Sweeney Todd movie. I had come to think of the Lansbury/Hearn Sweeney Todd as the definitive version, and feared change. The Broadway cast album featured Len Cariou as Sweeney, which was a great disappointment on first listen (he's grown on me, but I prefer Hearn's manic rendition better). I'd seen several stage productions, including the fantastic version hosted by the Sledgehammer Theatre, which I saw several times during its two different runs, but even as I acknowledge the talented local actor from that production is quite possibly the best Sweeney I've ever seen, seeing this and any other production only sent me back to the familiarity of my original cassette, or now the commercially-available DVD. I realize part of the point of live theater is that things can evolve and be reinterpreted, but a movie would require much more substantial changes and adaptations. Then there was the whole thing about casting Johnny Depp as Sweeney. That did nothing to diminish by unease.

So as the movie approached, I avoided media coverage of the film. I never saw the trailer, and thanks to my DVR and the writer's strike, only saw the commercial a handful of times; it confirmed that the look and feel of the film rang true, but didn't show enough to pass judgement (Depp never sang). So when I saw the reviews coming in yesterday, it all seemed rather sudden. Much like Christmas really snuck up me this year, I found myself asking myself, Is it really time for me to confront the Sweeney Todd movie? It was, and this afternoon, I did.

And I loved it. Really loved it. Despite its flaws, and yes, it is most certainly flawed. But they got so much right. Yes, it's different than the show I know by heart, but film is a different medium, different enough that I can appreciate it on its own merits. I'll never make the film a part of my life like I did the televised stage rendition, but I still imagine the movie DVD will be played a fair amount when it comes out.

Let's start with what I didn't like. They could have done better than Helena Bonham Carter. By the conclusion of "The Worst Pies in London," I was half-convinced she was going to single-handedly sink the production. She grew on me, and in retrospect I think part of the problem was that the humor of the first song might not work as well on film, requiring the exaggerated acting and audience interaction of live theater. But still, I found her a bit disappointing; she always seemed to be trying so hard when she was singing. Clearly singing is not within her comfort zone. Kudos for trying, and she makes it work, but I think they could have found someone with more musical experience, who could have moved beyond "making it work." But if there was one odd casting choice, it was for the role of Tobias. Newcomer Ed Sanders is fine, but he is a child, looking like he came straight from the cast of Oliver! Tobias is a simple-minded man-child, not an actual child. When he first emerges from Pirelli's wagon, I was in shock. But as the film goes on, and I see how they've changed the role to reflect his age, I thought it was an inspired change, highlighting the class issues that are a sub-theme of the show. But as I started thinking ahead, knowing where the story was going, I realized it wouldn't work. And it doesn't work. It doesn't work at all. I can't say why without spoiling things, so I won't. But it doesn't work.

Lots of changes involving moving, shortening, or cutting songs. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which bookends the musical and provides narrative throughout, was cut. Probably a wise choice, mostly. I'm reluctant to discuss the ending (and by ending, I mean final seconds), but lets just say I wished they found something to replace the final reprise of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" with. The Johanna/Anthony storyline is streamlined, their songs truncated or dropped and told instead with more filmic techniques. This I whole-heartedly support; getting through their romance always felt like a chore, and giving Alan Rickman more room to expand on his evil character is a wise approach to the material. The beginning of the second act is shuffled around a bit, with a trimmed "God, that's Good" coming after "Johanna." My main complaint with the songs being trimmed was that "A Little Priest" was quite truncated. Which was probably a necessity. But instead of cutting out some of the career puns (well, they actually did that, too), they cut out the verses that highlight the economic themes and concerns with the class struggle which undergird the story. How do you cut verses like:

The history of the world, my love
Is those below serving those up above!
How gratifying for once to know
That those above will serve those down below!
or: the verse:
The history of the world, my sweet
Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat!
But fortunately it's also clear
That everybody goes down well with beer!
Good stuff. [edit: Oops, on subsequent viewing, I realized I misremembered; the first verse quoted was in the movie. Mea maxima culpa.] So I was sad that was gone. And the whole song doesn't work too well on screen, apparently because they felt that we just couldn't understand what they were talking about unless they showed a member of every profession just as it was mentioned in the song, which just made things feel awkward (and was it just me, or did the fop look more like a pimp).

Anyway, that gets my complaining pretty much taken care of (I intend to see it again Christmas day with my sister and brother-in-law, and I'm sure I'll find more nits to pick). It probably won't take up as much space to say what I like, because it doesn't take much time to say: Wonderful! The look of the film, the sets, the costumes, the cinematography, the blood, all was perfect. By the end of the opening credits, I was already highly impressed. The black-and-white world of Victorian London, sprayed with arterial blood, or the washed-out colors of Mrs. Lovett's fantasy (the existence of a Sweeney Todd movie is completely justified just on the basis of Burton's take on "By the Sea"). A soaring orchestral score, giving Sondheim's music the majesty it deserves. Sasha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin, and Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford are all inspired choices. And yes, even Johnny Depp as Sweeney works excellently. Within the first twenty minutes, I had forgot my misgivings, only to briefly remember them during "Epiphany" (he can't quite pull it off, but comes close enough to get by). But I'm sure, whatever is lost briefly in one song is more than made up for by the value of the Depp-Burton collaboration.

I am just so happy I enjoyed this movie. I really feared today's trip to the movies would be a soul-crushing experience. But providence is kind, and the film Sweeney Todd is just as tasty as one of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies (you know, the good ones, with the good meat in them, not the awful ones). I really can't recommend this film too much. If you don't know the story, this is a fantastic introduction, and if you do, Burton's pitch-perfect film is a great way to experience it again in a unique way. I'm sure I'll be digging up my Sweeney Todd DVD and getting reacquainted with my old friends Sweeney Todd and his old friends the razors. But before that, I can't wait to see this movie again.

Needless to say, my vote for best picture of 2007 should be quite evident, but in case it needs saying, let me give my choice now: Reno 911: Miami Sweeney Todd.

UPDATE: Added imeem's stream of the movie soundtrack. You'll probably want to wait until you've seen the movie to give it a listen, but it's nice for revisiting the film.

UPDATE #2: Okay, apparently the imeem player above will only play 30-second samples, even if you're logged in to imeem, if you try to stream it from this page. If you click on "launch standalone player," at the bottom of the page (and are logged into imeem), it will open a new window where you can listen to the whole album (as that page doesn't have ads, I don't understand the point of this obstacle to music enjoyment, but whatver, I should be grateful for a free stream of the entire album).

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