Monday, March 1, 2010

Burtonfest Begins: Sweeney Todd

To seek revenge can lead to hell/ But everyone does it and few so well…

2007 was such a banner year for film that in many ways I still don’t think cinema has quite recovered. It was a year which yielded a bumper crop of instant American classics. Zodiac, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, and another, one that is not often mentioned in the same breath with those films but which I have absolutely no hesitation about listing in such exhaulted company.

I am of course talking about that rarified gentleman, Mr. Sweeney Todd and the mad melodrama he inhabits. A lurid terror created by a filmmaker in full command of his powers.

Tim Burton who has had one of the most blessed careers in modern Hollywood, both commercially and critically, has found his status dipping preciptariously with the release of Alice In Wonderland. At least two critics whom I have nothing but respect for, have released piece on Burton for which Scorched earth does not quite cover. Something tells me the reviews on Alice ain’t gonna be pretty. So consider this a prememptive attempt to bring some balance to the blogosphere. I’m an unrepentant Burton apologist, and I’m devoting the week here at Things That Don’t Suck to an appreciation of his work. (Two films you won’t find here are Batman Returns because I’ve already written it up. And Batman because its going to be part of the super secret project I keep hinting about. The one that starts on March 24th)

Sweeney Todd, is a film that to me at least is almost compulsively watchable (And as Tom Waits noted, I have to live with me), a sumptuous dark opera that finds the perfect vehicle for Burton’s talents. A visual splendor, with fantastic music and a black but beating heart. It’s the sort of film nightmares are made out of.

Despite being one of the most respected composers working in musical theatre Stephen Sondheim is curiously scantly represented on screen. Despite being one of its most successful products Sondheim is antithetical to much of what we think of as the musical. Though it is little wonder why. The American musical is usually a big brassy affair with easy crescendo’s, catchy melodies, and giant show stoppers. Sondheim’s work contains exactly none of these things (Here’s an excellent primer on his work). His music is so insular he’s almost frustrating to listen to. There’s nothing easy about his music it frankly demands attention. To the apathetic ear there seems to be very little going on, it takes care to hear the layers of point and counter point, sneaky melody, and clever interplay that occurs in his scores. But it’s the lyrics, once again deceptively simple where Sondheim really shines propulsive and poetic, and like his music deceptively clever. Not the sort of thing one wants to consider whilst munching popcorn (To complicate matters Burton excised The Ballad Of Sweeney Todd, the only composition in the piece that does sound like a traditional showstopper, and then cut the chorus out of God That’s Good, the only other song that might fit that bill, turning it into a solo act).

Look Here

And Then Here:

And Hey:

And then here for perfect examples. On The Surface the songs are down right unremarkable. Samey songs with simple melodic and harmonic structure and fixed tempo. But my watch them again, watch the delicate way the differences of pitch and lyrical counterpoint allow the performers to play off eachother. The perfection of the beats. The precision of the whole thing is astounding.

Even among Sondheim’s body of work, Todd is an odd bird. A Jacobian revenge masquerading as a musical, dark both in the excesses of its Grand Guignol revenge, and the very real darkness of the human heart that leads to it

From its opening frames Todd is a movie completely in control, Burton achieves his tone of Hammer Horror mixed with Broadway from the first. From The Opening credits which I considered the best since Se7en until Watchmen stole that title and gleefully harkens back to Burton’s animation roots with devilish glee.

Though I’ve never been able to confirm I’ve always suspected that there is some subtle CGI augmentation in this film, to bring the characters closer to Burton’s platonic ideal. In shots like the one below his characters look so much like his sketches come to life its uncanny.

Burton has always been a rather static filmmaker, despite the insanity in his frames, his skills as a stylist have always been that of formalism and composition. Not so in Sweeney where he uses the melodrama at the heart of the story as an excuse to cut loose. It’s by far Burton’s most dynamic movie, his camera prowling the streets of London like a predatory beast, and taking long sweeping shots as if it’s being swung from a light fixture. Sequences like The Masked Ball, The beyond gruesome finale, and the wistful horrific staging of Joanna, thrum with a malignant vividness foreign to Burton’s usually much more easy going fantasias. Elsewhere his palate skips nimbly between opulent pop decadence and shadow soaked grandeur

The film’s cast is one of Burton’s best (Saying a lot as he’s never really had to struggle to find great actors wanting to work with him) and certainly one of his most perfect. Timothy Spall brings his specialized brand of rancid anti charisma to his roll of The Beedle. The newcomer's playing Anthony and Joanna, are perfectly cast as well acting as one critic said, "Like Disney Characters who have mistakenly wandered into Hannibal" Rickman brings unsuspected depth to his hissable villain, and Sacha Baron Cohen as expected gets into the spirit of things. Channeling the spirit of garish Vaudville (gotta love his Italian Flag smock) in his manic steet swindler. Before toning things down for his suitably ghastly ending.

The one who deserves the most credit and probably got the least of it, is Helena Bonahm Carter, who somehow wrests her character to unlikely life. For those unfamiliar with the plays history, The role of Mrs. Lovett was more or less defined by Angela Lansbury who played the part for like a bazillion years and will probably have herself stuffed after her untimely death and fitted with a voice box that will warble “The Worst Pies In London” until the Earth is consumed by the Sun.

She played Mrs. Lovett as an uber strumpet, a gleeful harpy from the black pits, and more or less every single person to play the role since then has followed suit. Carter had the balls to turn this caricature into an actual character for the first time since well ever. She infuses Lovett with real sadness and depth. Creating tragedy out of farce. Her and Depp’s duets on My Friends and her solo work on “Not While I’m Around” and “By The Sea” have a real longing and poignancy to them. Which isn’t to say that she brings nothing less then gleeful demented malice to the songs like Little Priest and God’s That’s Good. For the first time, well ever, I found myself actually hoping these two crazy kids would make it.

The other half of the pair, Depp’s Todd is equally apt. His role is deadpan, he plays Sweeney as a man so consumed by his desire for vengeance that he is literally unable to feel anything else. To a certain extent, Depp plays the straight man to the lunatic circus that’s orbiting around him and more then a couple of the films very few laughs (That said, when the film is funny, its very funny. Rarely has Burton's humor been so sharp. There's a priceless moment in The Judge's court, and Depp's performance in By The Sea defies description) are his utterly emotionless reactions to the things around him.

Still when its needed, Depp brings it. When his mask cracks, its for one reason, he’s going mad with uncontainable rage. When Sweeney kills its not a joke. There’s real madness in Depp’s eyes, to a point that’s genuinely frightening. What he lacks in singing (though the only song he actively fucks up is Epiphany. This being somewhat regrettable as its his most important song) he makes up for with clearly weighted investment.

Yet for all its darkness, Todd never once feels like a dour movie. It’s a meat pie filled with arsenic but there’s a dynamism to it that keeps it utterly alive. It’d be nigh impossible to find a more nihilistic film or a more exhilarating one. The whole world is going down in flames and its dancing right along.

I hope you’ll stick around for the rest of the week. “The Work Waits/ I’m Alive At Last/ And I’m Full Of JOY!”

Postscript: (I put together this tribute to Burton way too spur of the moment to try and make it a proper blogothon. But should anyone want to write up a Burton article, and email me a link, I'll be more then happy to post it.)


The Film Connoisseur said...

The songs on this film are kind of hard to get used to, but after a while, they kind of stick and before you know it, your humming along.

I love it how Burton has managed to remain dark and gothic all these years.

Alice in Wonderland is having all sorts of problems even before it hits theaters, it seems theaters are boycotting the film because Disney will be releasing it too soon on DVD or something?

The previews make it look like it will be a fun 3-d experience. Im seeing it anyways, its a Burton film after all.

Aaron said...

What an excellent and in-depth write-up. I haven't seen this yet. I tried once, but I was drunk at the time and wasn't in the mood for singing Johnny Depp, so I turned it off and haven't looked back since. I'm sure I'll get around to it one of these days. Looking forward to the rest of your Burtonfest coverage!

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks to the both of you.

Neil Fulwood said...

Agreed: Helena Bonham Carter is one of the best things about this movie. For me, 'The Worst Pies in London' and the brilliantly deadpan 'By the Sea' were the standouts.

Kschenke said...

My single criticism for the film is the absence of one particular scene and one particular song in that scene. It has the two young lovers actually talking to each other and deciding to run away together. The song is great, but the scene also gives us some very important character development that the movie lacks. It also lets you get to know Johanna a little better.

But I adored Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett. And she has a very raw, but delectable singing voice. And I don't know if there is anything better than Depp singing, "This is piss. This is piss."

Bryce Wilson said...

I agree with you Johanna was one of the things the film's cutting shorted.

Still its nice to get a fellow Sweeney Todd lover here. I was getting lonely.