December 23, 2007

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street!

I was able to see this movie on Friday morning (December 21st, four days before it comes out nationwide) by biking to a mall in Emeryville, for only six dollars (their holiday morning fare!), the price of which also bought me snuck-over admittance to The Golden Compass. The sources of both films I am thoroughly familiar with. And both movies, I here report for the blogosphere & posterity to consider, exceeded my expectations. For both was it hard for me to pretend I didn't know every plot detail & nuance of adaptation; but, in this day & age, it's all about having fun in malls by yourself at eleven a.m., isn't it?

Ah, Sweeney! Ah, humanity! A little after the blood in act two starts flowing, Mrs Lovett sings a dreamy song wishing she & Mr Todd could retire to the seaside after the revenge is complete & some money has been made. I chose this moment to urinate, & a large gay man also ran out of the theater with me. "You're right," said he. "I couldn't bear to sit there & hear her slaughter that song." I'm sure many of the enthusiastic Sondheim lovers who, like myself, biked far thru the cold to see the earliest possible showing of this long-anticipated movie, were constantly let down by the lack of force behind the lead actors' vocalizations. The only operatic vibrato to be
heard in the entire movie is in the princess-in-a-tower's annoying "Green Finch" song. This is probably a wise decision on the filmmakers' parts, translating the singing styles for the "Highschool Music" generation. Johnny Depp sounds like a cross between a British punk rocker & Sanjaya Malakar, but he pulls off a complex but characterized musical titular nasty with the perfect amount of camp, which is a lot. His Sweeney is shyer & more introspective than it is usually done, but that works for Mr Depp & for the intimacy of cinema. The most powerful moments of Sweeney's craziness (i.e. "At last, my arm is complete!" & "My Lucy lies in ashes...") are quite powerful, even without shaking the theater like Len Cariou. Mr Depp & Helena Bonham Carter look amazing, even iconographic, in this movie, and they pull it off with their charismatic acting.

I thought of A Clockwork Orange, which manages to follow the plot of its original scene by scene, while making it entirely Kubrik's own vision. It would be hard to gut a Sondheim musical, with so many interlocking parts & motifs, without destroying its logic. Tim Burton kept most of the songs there in the right order, and used his favorite actors & stylized amoral universe, essentially fitting it to his brand. Johnny Depp holding up razors in a dusty attic with a sideways ceiling, it's obviously a connection to Edward Scissorhands. And that reference gives us things to say about Burton's world & human potential. What about Edward & Sweeney, both artists with blades who are isolated from the society around them? Edward is seen as a pariah, yet he longs for beauty. When he is co-opted by the suburbs as a barber, he is a little too weird for the roll. His true calling, topiary, is functionless & creepy in some lights, but it definitely improves the world he is thrown into. Sweeney is a much-wronged murderer who is able to hide in society as one of its necessary units, a barber, & he is co-opted by the practical & capitalistic Mrs Lovett. Like all throughout the 20th Century, business is never better but when the creative minds use their artistry for evil. Sweeney Todd would use his "negative art" (like Lady Macbeth - who, as a negative mother, takes people out of the world instead of bringing people into it) for the sake of itself, but Mrs Lovett is able to adopt it to nourish the community & make big money.

So what are we watching? Twenty-first century audiences have trouble with movies where people sing at each other. This movie is filmed on a set, everything is deliberately & beautifully artificial-looking, the plot is melodramatic & the acting is stylized. Basically, it's a postmodern glorification of a dozen outdated theatrical ideas. Some of the best movies of the past decade have had artificiality as a cinematic theme: The Life Aquatic & Ghost Dog are good examples. As for musicals, it seems like all of a sudden rather a lot are getting made, appealing especially to teenagers, gay men, & middle-aged ladies. Perhaps Sweeney Todd is bloody enough & ironic enough to get my demographic, the much-coveted twenty-somethings, to delve deeper into Sondheim's genius & begin to accept people singing at each other in movies again.

1 comment:

ß&dragon said...

How come no one's taking me exciting new quiz over there on the left?