Friday, December 21, 2007

Sweeney Todd: Sondheim With Its Throat Slit

Sweeney Todd is a movie musical which, I fear, will please nobody.

It won't please the nerdcore crowd looking for Tim Burton awesomeness along the lines of The Nightmare Before Christmas or Edward Scissorhands.

It won't please the kajillion tween girls who came just to see Johnny Depp (and there were plenty of them at tonight's showing, in gaggles of twelve with a lone harried mother attached as chaperone).

And it certainly won't please the Sondheim fans.

Strangely enough, it will fail to please each of these groups for exactly the same reason:

They stop the action to sing.

It's "talk talk talk talk action action action STOP LET'S HAVE A SONG."

And that's wrong.

It's wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong-wrong.

Sure, the songs are shot beautifully. Great camera angles. Lush, saturated colors.

And the music sounds lovely. Johnny's a crooner, and Helena's a surprising soprano.

But they stop for the songs. They don't treat the songs as if they had anything to do with advancing the story.

Let's take "A Little Priest." Burton shoots it with Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett staring through a greasy window, musing on the potential tastiness of the people walking around outside. Just to make sure the audience makes the connection, Burton even shows us the individual people; we see a friar, and then we hear Mrs. Lovett sing "try the friar!"

But that's not what the song's about. It's not a song about the people outside. It's a song about Mrs. Lovett trying to make Sweeney fall in love with her by proving she's as clever as he is. And how can she do that? Through idea and wordplay. So she spends the entire song wracking her mind to impress him; to make him pay attention to her.

(This is made most obvious in the bridge section, which Burton cut.)

But this film makes it a song about musing. A song about staring. A song about friggin' boring.

And all of the songs are like that. It's like no one ever considered why these characters are singing. "My Friends" is not a song about how beautiful razors are. It's a song in which Sweeney puts together a plan. We don't see him make that plan; we only see the beautiful razor.

As noted in Slate
, the Johanna/Anthony story is truncated to its barest element. Boy meets girl, and... well, that's about it. All of the action-based songs (like "Kiss Me") are gone, and we get a rendition of "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" which is an almost continual shot of Johanna sitting at a window. But Johanna is trying to get free from Judge Turpin. Even while she sings, she is trying to get free. The song is antic, frantic, distressed. It's not sitting. Burton gave us sitting.

And that's why the audience -- a packed house -- began to squirm in its own seats.

Editor's Note: Please scroll down for video clips featuring the difference between an active performance of "A Little Priest" and Tim Burton's version.


maverick said...

hey...nice blog :)..n an interesting post..probably will try to see this movie...u shud see finding neverland..

Blue said...

Thanks, Maverick. I totally should see Finding Neverland. I missed it the first time, can't remember why, and never went back to rent it.

maverick said...

@blue..its has a play on peter roll u?

Daniel said...

I haven't seen it yet, but I'm totally going to, even though I know I'm going to be disappointed.

I've heard they've cut songs, I've heard they've mangled songs, and the list goes on.

But, it's still Sweeney Todd, and I love it so much, that I can't not see it.

Sadness, though, that they didn't ask a theater-type like you to help them with what moods they should be going for in given scenes. You'd've made the movie better!

The Director said...

I thought the movie was very, very well done. The biggest thing that bothered me, though, was exactly what you pointed out!

I will admit, however, that I haven't seen any other versions of Sweeney Todd. Broadway Mouth suggested that I check out a DVD of the Angela Lansbury one. I think I'll do that, and let you know which one I liked better!

You should really enjoy Finding Neverland, too. Great movie!

Thanks for reading my blog -- I really enjoy yours!