One of the worst situations one can encounter when going to a film is having all of your worst fears realized. Sadly, such was the case with Tim Burton’s latest film, an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The story of Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), who returns to London after an unjustified prison sentence to discover his wife dead and his daughter Johanna under the care of the very Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) who wrongfully convicted him of a crime he didn’t commit. Desperate for revenge, Barker takes on the name “Sweeney Todd”, and moves back into the room above the pie shop where Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) works. A hellish partnership is formed between the two, as Todd practices for dispatching of Turpin by killing unsuspecting customers, who are then turned into meat pies sold by Mrs. Lovett.
Tim Burton does (as expected) a wonderful job with the look and feel of the film, with the surrealistic gray drab textures and stylized violence which borders on absurd, but still definitely not for the squeamish. It’s a bloody spectacle, a parable about societal class differences in late 19th Century London, and it’s an excellent musical. Unfortunately, it didn’t translate to the big screen very well. Some creative changes were made to the story, most glaringly the omission of the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” Greek Chorus interludes that introduce the musical, and carry the story along until the end, where we get a great epilogue. Oddly, the main title features the Ballad in instrumental form only, but without any of the melodic lines that the choir would be providing – resulting in a rather odd karaoke-styled version of the piece. (The visuals for the main title are fun, however.) A few other things have been rearranged (Sweeney builds his own custom barber chair, and does so before the “God That’s’ Good” sequence), but what truly kills the whole film is the acting and singing.
Or should I say, lack of singing. It’s not that they don’t sing, really – it’s just that they really can’t sing well. Depp, Carter and Rickman are all accomplished actors, but they can’t seem to sing well. Depp is constantly reaching for the notes, sliding upwards to find them. (“My Friends” has some dreadful examples of that.) Carter sounds like she’s bored, reading lines off a teleprompter, making me pine for the energy and enthusiasm that Angela Lansbury had when she debuted the role at 54-years of age. (Carter is only 41, and isn’t even half as energetic!) Rickman is an exceptional actor, but his clenched tone makes the singing sound like Hans Gruber decided to take up musical theater. Speaking of people who can’t seem to escape a previous role, Sacha Baron Cohen as Adolfo Pirelli looks like Borat, with his tight uniform and prominent bulge. While he can hit the notes, he feels more robotic in his delivery and it just doesn’t feel like he’s into the role.
Now, it should be said that not all of the singing is bad – the Jamie Campbell Bower (in the role of Anthony) does a very good job, as well as Jayne Wisener (Johanna) and even the young Ed Sanders, who plays the role of Toby. But these solid performances can’t overcome the cringe-worthy performances that the rest of the cast give, and it took me out of the film. Instrumentally, the new recording is quite good, and the additional score cues that composer Alex Heffes wrote (arranging more of Sondheim’s material) are solid and enjoyable. But it’s not enough to bring the movie up to a level where I would feel comfortable seeing it again. Hollywood gets it right on occasion (Hairspray had qualified singers in the main roles), but Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is like The Phantom of the Opera – a well done film that is completely ruined by the inability of the leads to sing.