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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Released: December 21, 2007

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Movie Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Blu-ray / 2-disc SE DVD)

by Dan Goldwasser
on October 26th, 2008
[4 / 5] printable

Based on Stephen Sondheim's award-winning musical, Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a gruesome tale of revenge, love, murder and meatpies, all served up in a rousing Bernard Herrmann-inspired musical score with eloquent lyrics that delve deep into the psyches of the leads.  Returning to London after serving out a sentence handed to him by a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman), Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) rents a room above a pie shop run by the hapless Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), where he establishes himself as a barber under the name Sweeney Todd.  Once he proves his skill to the public, he intends to exact his revenge upon the judge, but he needs to practice first, with his sharp blades and ingenious barber's chair that allows his victims to be dispatched and dropped down to the cellar - where Mrs. Lovett turns them into meat pies to serve to the unsuspecting public.  It's a rather gory and morbid story, something perfect for Burton to tackle.

As I had said in my previous review of the film, I quite enjoyed the technical aspect of the production (the sets and costumes and cinematography are all top-notch), but I had a major issue with the actors singing.  I had just been too accustomed to the original Broadway recording to separate the two.  Interestingly, upon watching this new 2-disc special edition DVD and subsequent Blu-ray release, I found myself enjoying the film more - I was able to set aside my issues of heightened expectations, and was able to pay attention to the parts that intrigued me.  Going a step further, the supplements on the disc actually did a rather nice job of converting me over to a fan.  More on that in a bit.

Released originally on DVD back in March 2008, the highly anticipated Blu-ray release of Sweeney Todd was finally released this past week.  On DVD, the transfer is quite good, and on Blu-ray it As the film has a very cold desaturated look, there isn't much color to look at - but when there is (and it's usually blood red), it's nicely presented. No comment is necessary on flesh-tones; everyone looks pale as death. On DVD, typical standard definition issues appear when looking at imagery containing a lot of thin lines, and blacks aren't as pure as other releases - but it's still quite a good image.  There is a lot more detail present on the Blu-ray release, and that is obviously the preferred method of viewing.

Audio is well presented on home video. On DVD, an immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 track showcases Sondheim's music in delightful quality.  One of the best things about the film was the new production of the music recording, and unless you have the chance to hear the Dolby TrueHD track on the Blu-ray disc, this is certainly a great presentation of the score.  If only the vocal performances were as good.  There is a large dynamic range to the soundscape, with low bass pumping out the subwoofers and dialogue decently balanced.

For the supplemental extras, the filmmakers present a rather solid look at the making of Sweeney Todd, from the origins in British folklore, to the various stage productions, the musical, and of course, this film.  The Blu-ray contains all of the features found on the 2-disc Special Edition DVD, and most of them in high definition, no less!  First up is a 26-minute documentary "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd", (found on the first DVD disc).  It's a rather candid look at the adaptation of the musical to the big screen, and includes interviews with Stephen Sondheim to really sell the point that this is not a film version of the stage musical, but rather a film musical inspired by the stage production. It's a distinct difference, and Sondheim himself even goes so far as to implore fans of the musical to leave their memories of it at the door before seeing the film. It's advice I wish I had heard prior to my first viewing of the film!  Producer Richard Zanuck also discusses the challenges in bringing this project to the screen, and I found it rather refreshing to note that nearly everyone admitted that the lead actors had never sung before, and felt it would be a challenge.  In all, a short but excellent featurette.  There is no commentary on the film, which is actually fine, since I've found Burton's commentary tracks to be a bit dry - but it would have been a great opportunity for Sondheim to provide a track.

On DVD, the remaining extras are on the second disc.  Beginning with the 20-minute "Sweeney Todd Press Conference, November 2007" (SD), which is basically a Q&A with Burton, Depp, Carter, Rickman, Zanuck and Timothy Swall. This is a bit of fluff that just skims the surface of going into anything really interesting, with the standard "how do you feel about ____" questions being posed.  I'd be curious to know what Burton was doodling during the conference, myself!  A fascinating 20-minute featurette "Sweeney Todd is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber" (HD) explores the etymology of Sweeney Todd, and poses the question of whether he was ever real or not.  We don't get an answer to that question, but we do get some rather compelling and interesting stories about old English legends leading up to the first time Sweeney Todd showed up in print in the early 1800s.  The various stage performances are discussed, as well as early film versions - all leading up to the musical and this feature film. It's really interesting stuff.

"Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd" (HD) is a 12-minute interview with Stephen Sondheim about how he came to write what many consider his best work.  He discusses the challenges he faced with bringing the story to a musical form, and talks about how it came to be a film version.  The 16-minute "Sweeney's London" (HD) is an interesting look at historical London around the time that Sweeney Todd supposedly took place.  Using archival documents and new location footage, it's fascinating to hear about the difficult times that London was going through (lots of disease and the like).

"The Making of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (HD) is a slightly shorter version of the EPK "making-of" that was included with the award screeners this past winter.  Running about 24-minutes long, it's a rather glossy look at the making of the film, and while it covers almost every aspect of the production, it doesn't really feel terribly in-depth. That it also covers a lot of the same ground covered in better detail in other featurettes on the disc makes part of it feel a bit redundant.

"Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition" (HD) is a 19-minute exploration of the old 19th century Parisian tradition of macabre theater.  It's very in-depth and takes us from the back alleys of Paris where the theater found its roots (reminding me very much of the Théâtre des Vampires in Interview with the Vampire) to the modern day incarnation in San Francisco.  "Designs for the Demon Barber" (HD) focuses on award-winning production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Colleen Atwood and cinematographer Daiusz Wolski.  How they all collaborated to come up with a rather stark and desaturated color palette is explored, as well as the challenges faced in recreating 19th century London indoors.  "A Bloody Business" (HD) looks at the practical make-up effects that went into the gruesome demise of many people under Sweeney's razor.  We see how the prosthetics were set up and the sheer volume of blood would make Monty Python proud.

The rather fluffy "Moviefone Unscripted" (SD) lasts about 11-minutes long, and features Tim Burton and Johnny Depp answering questions about the production with the same amount of in-depth responses found in the press conference segment at the beginning of the disc.  "The Razor's Refrain" (HD) is basically a photo gallery of production stills and behind-the-scenes photos all set to a medley of music and songs from the film, running about 8.5-minutes.  There is also a photo gallery included in HD that you can step through manually, which shows a lot of the production artwork and more behind-the-scenes shots.  Finally, the "Theatrical Trailer" (HD) is included. 

In all, this is a rather well assembled package.  We get a very good transfer of the film (both video and audio), and the supplements did a rather good job at converting someone over to being a fan of the film.  I wish there was more on the musical adaptation (specifically on producing the new orchestral score and recording sessions), but there is a lot of great information here, and having Sondheim actively involved in the production was definitely the right thing to do.  It took a few extra months, but now with the Blu-ray release readily available, I'd recommend you pick it up in time for Halloween.

Movie Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

by Dan Goldwasser
on December 8th, 2007
[2 / 5] printable
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.


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Trailer Music

The trailers for Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street featured music by Two Steps From Hell, X-Ray Dog, Stephen Sondheim, Robert Etoll, and Immediate Music.

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