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10 May, 2009

DVD Review: SWEENEY TODD, THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET Two-Disc Collector’s Edition

Title: SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET Two-Disc Collector’s Edition

Year of Release—Film: 2007

Year of Release—DVD: 2008

DVD Label: Warner Home Video



When I first heard that Tim Burton was in production on SWEENEY TODD, I thought that he was remaking the 1936 British production that starred Tod Slaughter. An odd choice, perhaps, but then Burton’s made a career out of odd choices. The casting of Johnny Depp as the demon barber only heightened my interest, as I’ve become much more appreciative of his abilities as an actor in the last few years. Still, I must admit that it wasn’t very high on my radar for the year or so that it in production.

Then I caught the first trailer released for the film, the one featuring Depp performing Epiphany, and thought, “What the Hell? Is this a musical?” SWEENEY TODD, a musical? I thought that whatever weird circuitry lay in Burton’s mind, something had finally overloaded a breaker. Who produces a singing, dancing musical about a throat-slashing barber, and his mistress who bakes his victims into pies?

As you may have guessed by now, it would be a gross understatement to say that I’m not a big fan of musical theater. In fact, prior to viewing this DVD, I had no idea that it was based on a long-established Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim, a man that I’m familiar with solely by virtue of his mention in the film SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

Thus it was that Burton’s project, and my interest in it, promptly retreated to a back corner of my mind. Other movies came and went, and frankly, I wasn’t going to waste time keeping track of a musical I’d probably never see. I had more important things to follow.

Not too long ago, however, I received the DVD from a friend as a gift. I had heard enough positive reports of this movie from others to pique my interests, and decided to give it a try.
I must say that, whatever I was expecting… this wasn’t it. From the first scene, as Todd sings No Place like London, one gets the distinct impression that, while this is indeed a musical, it’s a Tim Burton musical, which means it will be unlike anything you’ve seen before. By the time Todd has his run in with rival barber Pirelli, (a splendid performance from Sacha Baron Cohen…) I was hooked.

The story is told in a way that transforms this from a music hall entertainment, which were the originations of the Sweeney Todd legends, into an operatic tragedy akin to Wagner or Verdi. The music, by Sondheim, is terrific, and the darkness of Burton’s imagination suits it perfectly. I can’t say how well Burton captured the original stage production, but he flawlessly compliments the music. While it’s not my usual type of musical fare, I must admit several of the songs stayed with me for some time, most notably the duet Depp sings with Alan Rickman, portraying Todd’s nemesis Judge Turpin. Their Pretty Women is a beautiful song, performed competently by two non-singers. Depp also shines on My Friends, and co-star Helena Bonham Carter is pushed to the limit with By the Sea, by all accounts a difficult piece even for trained vocalists.

The cast is superb, particularly the leads. Depp continues to impress me as he continues to demonstrate that his “pretty-boy”, 21 JUMP STREET days are well behind him. His ability to totally become his character, to dedicate himself fully to a role is nothing short of obsessive, and he portrays Todd’s obsession, his thirst for revenge, perfectly. Bonham Carter is also excellent as Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s paramour and partner in crime; she disposes of his victims by baking them into meat pies to feed her hungry clientele. Rickman, as Judge Turpin, is especially well-cast; he has an ability to project an evil presence that is unmatched in today’s cinema, and is very reminiscent of Vincent Price at his best.


The supporting cast is good, especially the aforementioned Cohen and Timothy Spall as the Beadle. Spall, best known as Peter Pettigrew from the HARRY POTTER films, is superbly slimy as the henchman of Turpin, whether fulfilling his role as a flattering sycophant or in his official capacity as the Judge’s enforcer. Jayne Wisener, as Todd’s daughter Johanna, and Jamie Campbell Bower, as Anthony, the young acquaintance of Todd who falls in love with her, are good… not spectacular, but they turn in a competent job.

Visually, the film is pure Burton at his best. More than any current director, Burton brings a definite style and look to his films, a presentation that’s as unique and identifiable as a Salvador Dali painting… and just as surreal. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but to those who are fans of Burton’s work, it’s familiar and welcome.

My DVD is the two-disc Collector’s Edition, and it comes loaded with special features. There are interviews with Sondheim, Burton, Depp, Bonham Carter… virtually all the important members of the production are included. There are features on the music, and on the history of the legend of Sweeney Todd, which I found especially fascinating. If you want the movie on DVD, then this is the DVD to own.

Ordinarily for something this unusual I would suggest renting before you buy, but I feel safe in giving this one a full Buy recommendation. This film will one day be considered a classic, and I think that anyone who gives it half a chance, as I did, will love it.





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