Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Written by John Logan, Stephen Sondheim, and Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Tim Burton
Sweeney Todd is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s best work. It’s a transgressive, bleak Broadway musical that goes against everything the art form had built itself up to. Most audiences are familiar with Rodgers & Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Weber and other popular composers within the modern musical. As a result, there’s a certain expectation from these productions that they will have lavish sets, present memorable songs, and provide thought-provoking but ultimately cheerful endings. Oklahoma dips its toes in darkness via Judd Fry but makes sure it ends things on an upbeat note. Sweeney Todd embraces violence and a dark worldview to deliver a story that stays with you, like a haunting.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Deep) returns to London after living in exile for fifteen years. His wife and daughter, Johanna, were stolen from him by the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who trumped-up charges to get rid of the barber. Barker, now going by the alias Sweeney Todd, visits his old shop positioned above Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) meat pie shop. Lovett has always held a flame for Todd and convinces him to stay and reopen his barbershop, telling him his wife is dead and Johanna is the judge’s ward. Reunited with his razors, Todd stews over what he should do until a confrontation with rival barber Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) leads him to murder. A macabre deal is struck between Todd & Lovett, he’ll provide the meat, and she’ll make the pies, allowing the barber to bide his time and determine how he will strike back at Turpin. A story like this can only end badly.
I can’t say I’m a massive fan of Tim Burton. His recent work has actually caused me to dislike his older films. With maturity, I can see the flaws more clearly than when I was a child and was easily impressed by production design alone. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is still excellent, which I credit to Paul Reubens as Burton was merely bringing his vision to life. In the 1990s, Burton felt fresh, but it’s clear he’s an example of the law of diminishing returns as he just keeps pumping the same aesthetic without adding to it a way that presents new exciting variations. He’s also become over-reliant on digital graphics that are truly ugly and make the movies look worse. Sweeney Todd’s digital blood has not aged well and is glaringly fake when seen through a 2022 lens. I’ve always felt few films employ these special effects well, and if they do, it’s always subtle; see things like Fincher’s Zodiac as a contemporary picture of this one where the effects are near seamless.
What makes Sweeney Todd one of Burton’s better films is nothing to do with him but the gorgeous songs of Sondheim. The composer had spoken about the film’s themes, and they obviously center on revenge. But Sondheim refuses to present a trite, straightforward, moralistic narrative and instead examines Todd’s situation with plenty of nuances. The barber is justified from a certain point of view as his family was destroyed by his enemies. The problem arises when he becomes so consumed by revenge that he starts murdering people who have no connection to his crimes. Todd is a victim but becomes a perpetrator instead of developing empathy. He justifies his actions by poorly reasoning that human existence is hell and, therefore, he isn’t doing anything wrong, and it’s anyone who judges him is a hypocrite. Sondheim further complicates things by making Todd’s relationship with Lovett more complicated and dysfunctional and introducing a child between them who plays a crucial role in the narrative.
Sadly, as stated in previous reviews, I lack even a primary education on music. Having been homeschooled and never taken to any instrument presented to me, I’d say I don’t even have rudimentary vocabulary down to be able to discuss those terms. When it comes to music, I know what I like, and I love Sondheim’s work. I do note that the style of Sweeney Todd is unlike anything else I’ve heard before. There are elements of opera in that almost all dialogue is sung, and there are often moments that aren’t clear-cut songs. However, the lyrics are so sharp and reveal how at the top of his game Sondheim was a level of clever human writing we don’t often see, refusing to just write the same types of songs and providing twists on familiar forms.
Johnny Depp does fine, and he even admitted he didn’t have the best singing voice, leading to him taking lessons in preparation for the film. Helena Bonham Carter also told Burton she wasn’t a great singer, but he liked how she looked for the character. You can hear it in their performances, which aren’t incredibly strong but passable. Sondheim’s music and the sing-talking style of Sweeney Todd do lend themselves to singers who may not be as strong. However, listening to the original cast recording with Len Cariou and Angela Landsbury can hear what talented singers bring to the project.
As an introduction to Sondheim, I think this is an excellent start, but I hope that anyone who enjoys the music will follow that thread and discover how complex and exciting the composer’s body of work really is. I’ve always been surprised with how popular this musical is because it feels like something audiences would have run away from. It’s a gory, bloody, violent story about murder & cannibalism that ends up striking such a powerful chord about the human condition. There’s a conclusion, but it doesn’t provide emotional closure, only an end to the story. The intent is that the audience will sit with their feelings & thoughts about this story and think about their own self-destructive behaviors that keep them from finding some sort of happiness. Additionally, Sondheim spotlights how we live in systems that want to break us and that if we allow them, we lose our humanity.