Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Movie

So, I've been doing some soul searching since seeing the new Sweeney Todd movie the other day, trying to decide whether my dislike for it was justified, or just me being salty because Burton et al. went a different way than the Sweeney dream movie I had pictured in my head. But I think I'm right.

The Sweeney Todd movie is not a good movie musical. Indeed, it is a straight movie that is ashamed to be a musical. The price of that shame is a film that fails to inspire any real feeling, much less evoke any of the majesty of Sondheim's original creation.

How could it be? This is Tim Burton, the man who made the delightful musical "Nightmare Before Christmas" and a handful of other movies with strong musical film sensibilities, esp. "Beetlegeuse" and "Edward Scissorhands". But I happened to catch a bit of his "Sleepy Hollow" the day afterward, and it explains a lot about what went wrong. Burton is approaching Sweeney Todd as an arch gothic drama, not an imaginative spectacle, and its the wrong choice. To be sure, were he adapting Sweeney's 19th century source material, this would probably turn out pretty well. But instead he's trying to shoehorn all the pathos, grand opera emotions, and explicit wit of Sondheim's score into this bleak frame. The songs are still the songs, but most of the life has been beaten out of them.

The trouble is not 'doing' the numbers as numbers, but simply bleeding them into the spoken scenes, unmarked by any transition in how the camera treats the material. Somehow these songs, which can really take care of themselves, turn out dull and workmanlike, as though everyone involved is trying to bide their time until its done. Take "A Little Priest"--the showstopper of the whole piece, crying out for morbid Burton-esque details, and the thing gets staged with Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett literally looking out the window at the professions mentioned in the song. Who looks at this material and thinks "let's play it as straight as humanly possible?" I dunno. Maybe the humor is meant to be in the literal-mindedness. But the humor is already there for the taking. Why fight it like this?

There are some exceptions that prove the rule:

1. The epiphany scene involves a sort of dream sequence where Johnny Depp is stalking around the streets threatening the dishonorable throats, who can't hear him. But again, the movie seems uncertain whether it wants to admit its doing a number or not, and it ends in a bit of confused musical logic, where suddenly Depp is back in the garrett and we're back in reality. In an admitted musical, such a transition would be ok, but in the hyper-realism context of the whole, you realize he's just been banging about in the corner for a while.

2. The "Johanna" staging picks up some momentum, altho it may just be that the song is a montage and requires crosscutting.

3. "By the Sea" is the only one that really works, and its because Burton momentarily lets loose and does it as a complete fantasy number. Unfortunately, the sudden infusion of easy laughs feels cheap against the otherwise terribly serious proceedings.

I would like to be charitable about the voices on Depp and Carter, and in a better staging of the whole thing, I think it would be easy to get over. But both contribute to the sense of caution pervading the film. I can't quite believe some things I've read that they were actually recording the vocal tracks for the songs while they were filming, but at least it would explain the extreme apprehension in places--one would assume you wouldn't keep that take in the studio. Seriously, some of HBC's entrances sound like she's being forced to stand up and sing My Country Tis of Thee at high school assembly. But she at least has a good sound in line with the character she's created. Depp's songs are ridden with scoopy pop mannerisms that are entirely unbelievable in the throat of his Sweeney.

I also had some beefs with the orchestration. Despite being done by Jonathan Tunick, the original orchestrator, I was struck at times how bland the usually rich textures of the score came off. It was partially the choices discussed above: musical films must work to make you aware of and engaged in the off-camera music; here they might as well have been listening to a CD player in the corner. There were also some oddly slow tempi, which gave the unfortunate effect of a conductor slowing down his orchestra to coddle the unprepared singers on stage.

Mind you, this Sweeney does not belong on the pile of truly inept modern film musicals, i.e. what I hear of Phantom and Rent. It is a very competently and beautifully made film. But it moves the genre backward not forward. All of the successful examples of the recent crop of film musicals had the security blanket of staging conceits--Hedwig, Dreamgirls, Chicago--one had hoped we were now ready to see a film musical in the classic form, and who better to do it than Burton, a director who seems capable of suspending disbelief with impunity? But instead he decided to run the other way.

Ah well. Guess we'll just have to wait for that Jekyll & Hyde adaptation...keep your fingers crossed for Sebastian Bach to reprise his role! And remember kids: it's all a facade...

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