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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

dir: Tim Burton
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I’ve had a fight recently with someone over the use of the term ‘gay’. Not in the obvious context, but in the one very familiar in a pop cultural sense, especially amongst teenagers. Dear friends who are teachers report that the children in their charge use the term in the pejorative manner ie. “That is so gay” so often that it drives their teachers nuts. Thus they spend a certain amount of time trying to convince The Kids that using it in such a manner is homophobic and inappropriate.

It’s a phrase with the least of bad intentions that is so easy to use and so easy to overuse. In the worst manner, it does, essentially, equate something with something else in a manner that does discredit both the comparison and the comparer. Okay, so describing something as, “ohmygod that’s so gay” doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate gay people, but you are using it in the pejorative sense, and by default saying that being gay is a negative.

But my argument is that simply using the term in such a context isn’t the same thing. The word itself, gay, isn’t a slur in and of itself these days, sidestepping the issue of what nomenclature is acceptable when one is a member of the applicable grouping. The reason is that it has a separate meaning within that context apart from saying anything, either negative or positive, about what it’s describing.

I’m sure I could bore you further with these kinds of pointless semantic/semiotic arguments, and that you’d be thrilled to bits to have me indulge myself just that little bit more. Of course, all that this is really leading up to is me saying that musicals are really quite gay. Musical theatre, dinner theatre, musical movies: as gay as it gets. It just doesn’t get any gayer than that, with the possible exception of Cirque de Soleil.

But none of this should be misconstrued, or even correctly construed to mean I’m saying it’s a bad thing. Whoever’s cup of tea it might be, it’s not mine, but I can certainly enjoy it in some circumstances.

For the record, yes, like anyone born in the 70s I’ve seen The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Annie, Oklahoma, Gigi, Sweet Charity, Funny Face, My Fair Lady, Seven Brides for Seven Rapists, Show Boat, The King and I, Carousel and South Pacific more times than anyone should ever have who still prefers vagina over cock, but that was a function more of having parents who liked that stuff (not being native English speakers), rather than any particular preference of mine. And I don’t pretend not to like the stuff now, or to like it for its camp kitsch value, because that’s just too try-hard hipster for me.

Okay, maybe I do hate Sound of Music, but that’s mostly due to overexposure and the fact that it shamefully glosses over the Catholic Churches’s collaboration with the Third Reich. It’s not like I go out of my way to watch them when they pop up on cable. Suffice to say, I’m not completely averse to them, but I’m not a fan, either.

Recent musicals for my money have ranged from the excruciating (Rent, Moulin Rouge, Hairspray) to the tolerable (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Dreamgirls, and that’s about it). So I went into Sweeney Todd with trepidation and mixed feelings, and maybe even some mild nausea.

Tim Burton’s films, for all his trademark visual style and gothic sensibilities, sometimes suck a whole hell of a lot, and Johnny Depp can sometimes be downright dull or irritating in some of his roles. And I couldn’t pretend to care about the Stephen Sondheim musical because, barring one song, I knew nothing of it, except so far as it’s a story where a barber kills people.

It turns out, though, that the director, the actors and the treatment of the subject matter meshes perfectly together in order to tell a deliciously macabre tale of injustice, murder and sweet, malevolent revenge.

Don’t go looking to the history books for this one, since it’s more than likely that Sweeney Todd is entirely a literary creation, much like Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Jesus. In the seventies the old story about a murderous barber was updated to include a story about revenge (that Todd was wronged by a corrupt judge, who sentenced him to transportation to Australia and ravaged the poor man’s wife and adopted his daughter), and Sondheim decided to add some delightfully witty songs to the mix.

There are a lot of songs. The story is mostly told through songs; songs and murders. This isn’t a musical that pretends it isn’t by only having songs at long, long intervals from each other. It’s all singing all the time.

The songs are pretty witty and wicked, though, and that’s what sells them. The acting is of course pitched loud and ‘big’ enough so everyone in the cheap seats can get a gander, but even then it’s pretty devilishly delicious in an operatic way.

Depp plays the titular protagonist; a bitter and twisted barber returning to London after fifteen years of exile. He returns to the place of his birth filled with loathing for almost anything and everyone in this loathsome place. He has befriended a young sailor (Jamie Campbell Bower) who sees London with hopeful eyes, undaunted by Todd’s opening sung statements about the place being a den of shit and vileness.

I’m not sure if it’s accident or intention that renders Depps’ version of Sweeney Todd looking like David Vanian from The Damned in their heyday, but let’s just say that he looks like some monstrous kind of villain from a very nasty punk pantomime.

Todd tries to find his old home, and comes across the bedraggled and monstrous Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), who makes the worst pies in all of London. We get to see her OH&S practices first hand in order to discover just how bad those pies truly are.

He is overflowing with murderous thoughts towards the judge who robbed him of his wife, his life and his child Johanna; Mrs Lovett is a figure of such amoral practicality that the next steps in their criminal empire-building aren’t too much of a stretch. He sets up his barber shop busy atop the bakery anew, with hopes of luring the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) to his place of employ eventually, and it requires something of a circuitous route, as does any story where the plot would finish within 20 minutes if the protagonists ever got what they really wanted in a timely fashion.

The vile Turpin has designs upon his ward, the fair Johanna, but so does the sailor from the opening scenes. Needless to say, everyone’s paths will cross in the most musically smashing of ways.

If the rivers of blood in the opening credits didn’t alert you to the likelihood of blood flowing throughout the rest of the film, then the moments where Todd and his straight razors fulfil their destiny in geysers and fountains of red, then you might be surprised and horrified, in fact. Shocked even. The vile and dingy setting reaches its absolute pinnacle once the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the reopened Mrs Lovett Pie Shop combine forces to both sell a lot of pies and disappear a lot of people who were just looking for a shave. Todd’s monomaniacal hatred of Turpin has become a generalised hatred of the world that he exacts carefully on his customers, all to the tune of Broadway songs.

And from the shadows cries a woman gone mad, who seems to know what horrors are going on, but the Fleet Street elite ignore her until it is way too late. Gee, I wonder if the lurking mad woman has any other role to play in the story? Nah.

Even amidst the horror and mania, Mrs Lovett harbours both a strange affection for Todd, and an even stranger fantasy of an idyllic life she, Todd and a local ragamuffin called Toby could lead, which leads to one of the funniest moments in the film, visually and conceptually. Up to this moment, the film has had that trademark Burton gloomy darkness pervading each and every frame. But once she sings of the life they could lead down by the seaside, it hilariously juxtaposes their gothic cabaret attire with the sunniest of sunny locales, using more light and colour than the entire rest of the film has in its entirety.

There are few images I’ve seen in the last few years funnier than Sweeney Todd sullenly sitting on a towel at a sunny beach.

Other highlights include the duet where Lovett and Todd sing about the various types of pies they’ll be selling, which will include priest, lawyer and soldier flavours. Makes a decent change from beef and mushroom, I think you’ll agree. I also liked his song of reunion with his beloved straight razors, which are silver, elegant and deadly, and the duet he sings with hated Turpin about pretty girls, oh them pretty girls and how entrancing they are. So entrancing that you don’t even notice the blade about to part the flesh at your throat.

There’s a small role for Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as his comedic alter egos Ali G or Borat. And let’s just say there’s something oddly satisfying about seeing what happens to him. It’s about bloody time. Rickman doesn’t have a huge role, but is as creepily, calmly, manically evil as you’d expect him to be.

I’m not going to pretend that either Johnny Depp’s singing is wonderful or that I am a particularly great judge of musicals or singing in general. I could be tone deaf, for all I know. I don’t listen to a lot of the musical type stuff (as in, I’d rather pull my liver out through my ear than buy or voluntarily listen to any by Andrew Lloyd Webber, or that Lion King – Miss Saigon – Les Miserables crap). But I can say that, at least to my ears, that the performances here sounded pretty strong, perhaps except for Depp, whose thin voice doesn’t quite match the darkness of the character. But it’s not noticeably incongruous.

What a ringing recommendation – Not Noticeably Incongruous. I’d see a film if it had that on the poster. Maybe even twice.

I enjoyed the flick, I really did. Sure, macabre stuff often appeals to me, but not strictly for its own sake. There’s something consummate and focused about the way everything is put together here, and displays Burton at his focussed best, telling a dark story well, and not shying away from the uncommercial nature of the material.

Fountains of blood, geysers of the stuff. Thick rivers of plasma and platelets coursing through the gutters and sewers of London, thick enough to choke the fish in the Thames. If you’re ready for that, and for a heap of singing, then Sweeney Todd could be right up your alley. Be wary of the closeness of the shave, all the same.

8 times I didn’t feel my heterosexuality was under threat by enjoying the singing in a musical out of 10. Well, not too much. After all, that Depp is *so* dreamy.

“These are desperate times, Mrs. Lovett and desperate measures are called for” – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street