Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Back when Jersey Girl came out, a friend of mine tried to convince me to see it by saying "It's like a romantic comedy, but you can watch it if you're a guy!" It was a curious sales pitch, and a not entirely convincing one at that. But I watched it, I'm still not completely sure if it was what my friend pitched it as. It was a romantic comedy, but I'm not sure if a bit more sex talk than average makes it necessarily more masculine than the average.

This comes up because a sequence of that film involves a musical rendition of Sweeney Todd, as depicted by small children. The connection is appropriate, because I can't help but think Sweeney Todd was likely pitched similarly to how my friend pitched Jersey Girl to me. "It's a musical, but there's gore and death and horrible things! Guys can watch it as well as women!"

So what we have here is a film of the musical, starring Johnny Depp and his ridiculous hair starring as Sweeney Todd, a barber back from prison and out for revenge. See, Alan Rickman (whose hair is relatively sensible) plays a judge who tried to steal Depp's wife by sending him off to prison, and he plans on killing him. He stumbles upon Helena Bonham Carter and HER ridiculous hair as Mrs. Lovett, a baker known for making really awful meat pies. Somehow, the plan for revenge mutates into murdering loads of people and cooking them as pies.

This already is looking like a bleak, gory film, and then you've got Tim Burton directing at his most Tim Burton-y. Lots of strange gothic touches, weird makeup with sunken eyes, grim dirty sets, and a whole distinctively twisted look that Tim Burton does all the time. You can tell it's Tim Burton from the very first frame, when there's a blast of orchestra. And then there's the dark town, and it's raining blood, which proceeds to connect a CG interpretation of the main set. It sets the mood brilliantly, and it's a mood that's completely opposite of what one would expect from a musical.

I suppose it might be unfair to think of musicals as all fruity singing and campy costumes. But really, can you blame people for doing that? It's singing! And even the darkest, creepiest musical, directed in a dark and creepy way by a dark and creepy man, starring some of the darkest, creepiest stars in film, is still a musical. And the singing is still in a very showy, elaborate, Broadway style. The style clash is pronounced and bizarre. Why is everyone singing with all this death and murder around?

To be honest, I'm not completely sure being a musical saves this or kills it. On one hand, making such a bleak, depressing story "straight", it might be much too oppressive, the atmosphere stifling, and the story itself far more disturbing. That everyone's singing - especially in the goriest sequence of the film, which has probably the catchiest song of all - ensures that it never seems too real. Everyone singing showtunes is pretty much all that stops it from being the most depressing, bleak movie ever filmed.

But personally, I was distracted by it. It just felt so jarring, everyone singing their way through their lives. I suppose that's the way with all musicals, and maybe I'm just not made to watch them, but throughout I secretly wished that I was watching a standard movie.

But can I really let my personal hangups dictate whether or not it's a good movie? It's well directed, surprisingly well sung (considering the stars aren't known for singing), and certainly an objectively good movie. If I don't like something very much due to it's entire genre, is that really the film's fault?

It's better than Jersey Girl though.

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