Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The belated release of Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno has us hankering for other movies about cannibalism. Bon appétit.
The songs in Stephen Sondheim’s musicals so eloquently express his characters’ romantic and creative dissatisfactions, he may not get as much credit as he deserves for how he critiques the cultures that created his heroes. Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony-winning 1979 musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street is mostly about the corrosive effects of revenge and romantic obsession on a handful of interconnected Victorian Londoners. But it’s also a cutting (some pun intended) inquiry into a cruelly imbalanced class system. Sondheim and Wheeler play on the audience’s sense of injustice and outrage, and help to construct an outsized, theatrical world onstage, where it kind of makes sense to kill the monied, cook them into meat pies, and serve them to the masses.
Director Tim Burton’s 2007 movie version of Sweeney Todd—adapted by screenwriter John Logan—isn’t as potent as it should be. Johnny Depp has the right look and attitude to play the murderous barber operating under the name of Sweeney Todd, but neither he nor Helena Bonham Carter (as the killer’s accomplice/chef Mrs. Lovett) has a strong or expressive enough voice to carry Sondheim’s pop-operatic style. That’s where Burton’s gift for making grotesquerie palatable to the mainstream comes in handy. He, cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, and set designer Dante Ferretti ratchet up the story’s gothic horror elements until they match the creepy, Bernard Herrmann-inspired elements of Sondheim’s orchestral score. Visually, they capture what the musical’s about.
In particular, the visual design includes a few sequences that zoom through the streets of London, moving from dangerous alleys to posh flats, exposing the dirty secrets that even the fancy folks can’t entirely conceal. The look of the big screen Sweeney Todd literalizes many of the themes, showing how capitalism and urban industrialization grind together like teeth, chewing humans up. And the core elements of Sondheim’s compositions hold firm. Even weakly sung, the musical’s wicked showstopper “A Little Priest” remains as stirring as it is funny, as Todd and Lovett imagine how various strata of London might taste. The movie mostly realizes Sondheim’s vision of a city where “those above… serve those down below.”
Availability: Sweeney Todd is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Netflix or possible your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.