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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Musicals are one thing that I’m admittedly not particularly the most into. I can watch stuff like say Les Miserables or A Christmas Carol as time-wasters for their suspense or comedic undertones, respectively, but generally, they’re hit or miss for me. I first saw this flick briefly when it came out in the mid-to-late 2000s and hardly remembered it after watching it that one time, only giving it a chance because I was a fan of Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean performance. But now, I’ve recently given the musical-romance-thriller film another shot via Netflix, and I have to say, it’s a little bit better than I remember.

In regards to the history behind this one and how it came to fruition, director Tim Burton came off of the heels of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as well as Corpse Bride (both of which were released in 2005 and featured Johnny Depp in starring roles) and decided to work on a musical revolving around fictional serial killer Sweeney Todd. One passion project he realized for the longest time. Unsurprisingly enough, in order to recapture his signature dark aura, familiar horror-comedy tones with romantic elements sprinkled in, and that distinctly campy atmosphere, he revamped his old-school formula. Depp was hired in once again, along with fellow dramatic character actress, and Burton’s then-wife, Helena Bonham Carter in addition to the late Alan Rickman (Professor Snape himself). He also brought along composer Stephen Sondheim, one of the original creators of the musical, for the project.

Shaving Contest
Shaving Contest in Sweeney Todd; Image Courtesy of Talk Film Society

Now getting on to the story at hand, it revolves around a London area barber named Benjamin Barker (Depp) who returns to his English hometown with a young sailor following an extended period of exile due to false convictions. This barber is anything but ordinary, though, as he uses his sharp razor blades for more than just hair trimming. With his return to London in search of his estranged wife Lucy (Laura M. Kelly) underway, the man changes his name to ‘Sweeney Todd’ and with the assistance of Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter)—a small-time pie shop owner with business troubles—he goes on a bloody killing spree. Amid all the bloodshed and rampage, Todd’s ultimate goal is to win back the love of his ex-wife and to eliminate the dreaded and corrupt Judge Turpin (Rickman)—who once lusted after Todd’s ex-wife—from existence.

Basically, the dialogue within this one is fairly half-and-half in the sense that, as in a ton of other typical musicals, the characters switch between normal conversational speech and singing in turn. There are some twists and turns in between all the ‘song and dance’ montages, including one major twist to do with Lucy and an ending that is pretty bloody (pun intended) unexpected if you don’t know the source material. The manner in which the corpses of the demon barber’s victims are disposed of is also interesting; with an emphasis on making them as mincemeat as possible and making sure they help in adding some “extra flavor” for the meat pies Mrs. Lovett (who takes a liking to the demon barber as the plot progresses), bakes.

Sweeney Todd & Judge Turpin
Sweeney Todd Confronting Judge Turpin; Image Courtesy of IMDb

The strongest aspect of this entire flick, aside from the catchy and often witty show tune lyrics of the musical numbers and the musical score itself, has to lie within the character development. The writing is actually quite good, and I have to give Burton credit for giving in his own vibes to the source material. Depp’s performance as the demon barber was believable and robust, as he attempts to paint himself in the most brilliantly sadistic and hardhearted way possible when it comes down to indulging in his psychopathic pleasures. Carter’s emerging relationship with Depp’s character also takes some turns of its own, making some dramatic undertones present. The side plot with the young sailor kid is one thing I thought could’ve been done better with, but I also enjoyed seeing some of the more abhorrent, antagonistic characters in this flick get their come comeuppance. Some elements of Burton and Depp’s previous works, like Sleepy Hollow with the general olde worlde feel; and Edward Scissorhands with the misunderstood central character arc trope, are certainly made known early on.

However, despite all those good things, there is one trait regarding this movie that sort of bothered me…and it had to be the over-reliance on the musical numbers. Now, bear with me here, and I know what you’re all thinking: “but Dave, it’s just being itself. That’s what it’s meant to be!” And I know that all too well. However, I just felt as though, at times, they felt a little tiny bit forced in, such as in some scenes early on that could’ve been regular dialogue. I liked the musical numbers themselves, and the sequences of musical numbers that led up to the killings (which are gory and somewhat satisfying in an odd way in their own right) were well-placed for the most part. But times like the shaving contest midway through, and the reading of the letters felt kind of off to me in some ways. But this slightly comedic dark thriller flick does end up feeling like a Shakespearean-era tragedy in a really surprising and memorable fashion, and for that alone I humbly thank it.

All things considered, I would still say that I thoroughly had a ball giving this movie another viewing so many years later and I don’t regret it in the slightest. For Depp, Bonham and Rickman’s performances, in addition to the mesmerizingly beautiful main score, Burton’s directorial talents as well as the overall screenplay and tragic ending, I’d rate this one rather highly. I am placing it right up there along with A Christmas Carol as one of my favorite musical films. Sure, there are some slight issues I had with one or two character performances and the abundance of musical numbers, but I believe that the good greatly overshadows the negative here. This iconic Burton flick is easily deserving of the ‘masterpiece’ title in its own right.

Written by Dave Rafalko

Gamer, film buff, musician, student of the arts, etc.

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