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Stephen Sondheim:
A Life
by Meryle Secrest
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "Sweeney Todd:
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

The man who loves sharp objects, the darkness of men's souls and the visual style to match, director Tim Burton ("Edward Scissorhands," "Batman" 1 & 2), reaches a high mark in blood flow with the most demonic vengeance story he's ever braced into a musical comedy. And, he assembles what is arguably a cast that is so good it sets a higher bar for musical entertainments that most can ever enjoy through the work of singing actors who, through the agency of their mastered craft, show how it's done.

Adapting to Burton's demonic vision, two-time nominated screenwriter John Logan ("Gladiator," "The Aviator") works from the acclaimed Broadway musical by composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim in a collaboration that's unconstrained by residuals of a stage source, this Sweeney Todd blasts audaciously away with all the forces and resources of cinematic realization in a smashing production.

Sweeney's (Johnny Depp) story begins when he's known in 18th century London by his real name of Benjamin Barker, a common barber who was falsely accused by corrupt and unscrupulous Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) to get him out of the way while he (Turpin) lusts after the man's beautiful blond wife. With Barker out of the way, Turpin tries futilely to sweep her off her feet but only succeeds in taking her infant daughter under his wings as a ward.

Now, escaped from of his Australian cell and shackles, Barker, his eyes dark and drawn, arrives on a ship in the company of young Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), an admirer, with reunion and vengeance in his heart. (It would be hard to explain the spiffy black leathers that Barker's sporting, but no one's asking.) Singing the horrors and injustices of London, Barker's path preternaturally takes him to the pie shop and quarters of Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham-Carter).

Lovett, whose pie products wouldn't pass any FDA inspection under any administration is also a landlady with an upstairs loft. When she realizes who her visitor is, she digs up his long-hidden, still sparkling set of razors which she rescued when he was taken away. No further questions needed; he's her new boarder. The slanted side window in the room, with its directional soft light and plush armchair proves a perfect setup for the resumption of his trade. Thus, for the sake of a cover, he assumes the pseudonym, Sweeney Todd, new barber in town. Menace in the making.

Sweeney and Lovett, on a walk through London to check out the competition, come upon the street enterprise of Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen in his first major appearance since "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan"). The crowd hovers around the stage upon which blond Toby (newcomer Edward Sanders) hucksters in lively song a miracle cure for baldness in a bottle. When Sweeney checks it for odor and brands it "piss," the proprietor himself storms out from behind his curtained barbershop dressed to the nines in purple caped gloriousness and full of grandiloquent protest.

What ensues is a contest set to one (but only one of many) of the more charming and entertaining set pieces of the show, with the singing of exceedingly clever, rapidly paced lyrics and melody to energize a competition in comparative barbering skill.

Meanwhile, young Anthony (you remember, Barker's admirer on the ship) has discovered a blond teenage angel singing in a second story window and love is sparked. He learns from what we would call today a bag lady, but a hat-hidden face in lieu of any bags, that the girl is Johanna Barker, (newcomer Jayne Wisener), and she's the virtual prisoner of the evil judge. Seeing his angel up close is going to be a problem for the struck suitor. What he's got on his side is her reciprocity of feelings and that he's got a powerful ally on his side, no less than the girl's father.

Just how powerful is suggested by Sweeney's first killing, an event that presages the slitting of throats in cannibalistic ferver as Todd lusts for the necks of Judge Turpin and his snide chief aide and panderer Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).

What strikes you from the first frame to the last is that these people (the creators of this adaptation) know exactly what they're doing and have employed prodigious talent with which to do it! How well does our Pirate of the Caribbean sing? What Depp does he does to perfection. And so does Bonham-Carter, Rickman and the rest of the company. If blood were talent, these people are suitably drenched in it.

The timing of the duets, the intermingled control of the voices and the fervent tempi are seamlessly rendered with simultaneous harmonic and thespian precision. Depp, himself, has described it as "time signatures within time signatures." There should be no criticism from Broadway, save from stage purists, perhaps, and the envious.

Altogether, a solid choice of material for Burton, if surprising, and a marvel of good fortune that his two favorite actors, Depp and real-life partner Bonham-Carter, could enter the world of the musical and knock it out of the park (along with the exceptional character-creator named Sacha Baron Cohen). The visual design by Dante Ferretti serves the story with exquisite detail. The desaturation of color toward the blue end of the spectrum contrasted against idealistic rosy hues of the past by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski works for mood and magic. The reduction of red colors in the predominantly grey-bluish setting gives blood an incandesent glow -- a feast for the ocular appetite.

Alan Rickman serves up his delicious villain who can make us laugh (and/or snicker) while personifying evil and corruption.

If there's anything negative to be noted here it's the excessiveness of the butchery. Another director might have lessened it in order to make Todd a tad more sympathetic than Jack the Ripper and, to give us, the audience, a bit of a break. But, by the last act, the precious life fluid is running like a mountain brook, presented in slicing vividness. Some audiences will stiffen at what the hero has become at the end, but those who take it as tongue-in-cheek, will revel in the first class artistry that brings us to the promise of the title, the barber's uncontestable realization of his demonic destiny.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

(for Two-disc Special Edition)
  • Behind the scenes collaboration of Burton+Depp+Carter featuring special footage from rehearsals, recording sessions and more.
  • Sweeney Todd is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber
  • Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd
  • Sweeney's London
  • The Making of Sweeney Todd
  • Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition
  • Designs for a Demon Barber
  • A Bloody Business
  • Moviefone Unscripted with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp

    The Blu-ray DVD

  • All of the above in HD plus...
  • The Razor's Refrain HD
  • Photo Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer HD
  • The Soundtrack

    Opinion Section
    Comments from readers:
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    Site rating: 9

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                                                               ~~ Kathie 
    Well written, perceptive
    This review will influence me to see this movie, read mor by and recommend and get my local newspaper to hire this reviewer.
    Site rating: 10

    I have yet to see this film, but this reviewer appears to be very perceptive in what really matters in a film of this ilk. Good review.

                                                               ~~ Bob H. 

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    Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd
    Once again on Burton's palette; once again in chilling circumstances.

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