Carson and Barnes Circus, in the 1960s

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A Movie Musical To End All Movie Musicals


Movie Review: Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd’s pervasively wretched view of human existence, now on the big screen, left me in the mood for a hokey high school production of Oklahoma! Or maybe for a grandstand seat at a good old fashioned nuclear war. It left me wondering if I will forever associate Johnny Depp with the demon barber of Fleet Street who in serial revenge for having served a 15 year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit, proceeds to slit the throats of his gentlemen patrons and dispatch them into a basement meat pie processing plant below.

Oh yes, and Broadway’s reigning pessimist, songwriter Stephen Sondheim, has set the story to words and music, although even he seems not quite down to the gory tale he originally scored in 1979 for the Broadway stage. The musical was met with mixed notices, and it went on to enjoy a certain high respect in musical theatre and opera circles.

In the more sweepingly realistic form that a movie can give a story, oddly Sondheim’s darker songs sound a tad tame and old hat against the horrific goings on. Nor did the wicked humor come through. What may have worked on the stage seems lost or vaguely irrelevant here. And some of Sondheim's more brilliant lyrics get slighted; I'm thinking, in particular, of what Helena Bonham Carter fails to do with them. Depp, who can sing well enough, delivers a riveting performance as our diabolical hero. Secondary characters are all very fine.

As directed by Tim Burton, the smug intellectual conceit — indeed, the pretentious cynicism — of Sondheim’s Todd is more glaringly apparent. Burton’s compelling cinematic vision of rotten old London hardly needs these mentally overactive show tunes; in fact, at times they seem to get in the way of a bloody good drama, giving it a somewhat schizophrenic feel. And most of us, I’d bet on it, still harbor a wretchedly naive notion that music should lift rather than damn our spirits. Now, if you are in the mood for wallowing in life’s punishing betrayals and set backs, here is your ticket to a glorious overdose of rage. You might end up, happier maybe, on somebody’s plate. Loved and devoured, at last.

Or do you simply want more gore than you’ll get from Tarantino? If there’s a mass teenage audience out there for the bloody storm of ketchup that sprays crimson fountains into the polluted air and down upon Sweeney’s hapless victims about to be recycled into budget cuisine, the question remains: are the gore mongers willing to endure Sondheim’s sung laments in-between the throat slashings?

As for the adults among us, in the end you may pause to wonder as did I if Mr. Sondheim is really that brilliant and ground breaking — or just as simplistically one-dimensional a creative force as were the tunesmiths of old Forty Second Street who celebrated ideas like the best things in life being free?

Burton’s film will no doubt be acclaimed by the Sondheimaniacs who long for the world to finally embrace their idol’s genius. The film, too, may be heralded by Hollywood deconstructionists who view anything anti-main stream as a breakthrough, no questions asked. I am asking questions, though, and I will continue. At the outset, I wanted to be thrilled and stimulated and taught by this movie. I was left questioning it’s premise, even its intelligence. Maybe that’s because I still prefer — at least in the key of a song — believing in life rather than death, in a beautiful morning over a wretched London barber shop from hell.

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