Monday, December 24, 2007

Movies: Sweeney Todd

In my tweens and teens, I adored musicals. My mom took me to New York every year to visit grampa, and the first time I was old enough, asked me whether I wanted to see something called Cats or something called The Joffrey Ballet. I must have been nine or ten, and I chose the ballet (I took ballet classes at the time, and the concept of a bunch of people dressed up as tap-dancing cats frightened me). A few days before, I changed my mind and told my mom that I wanted to see Cats, but it was too late; she had already bought the tickets. I fell asleep at the ballet (which, incidentally, was Sleeping Beauty) and I think my mom did too. The next year, we saw Cats. And again the next year, and the next year again. I probably saw it five times total; I had the soundtrack and the book and memorized all of the songs; it was my favorite musical. Meanwhile, we had gone to see others; the next trip we saw two, then three. At the height of my obsession we probably saw four musicals and a play all in one week. I didn't like a lot of them (Tommy, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Showboat, The Goodbye Girl—the list goes on), but I kept my Playbills and ticket stubs faithfully stacked, and when I started high school, I sang all eight semesters in the chorus and tried out for every spring musical (and was cast in none). After chorus rehearsals, my friends and I would sit around outside of the theatre, chatting, listening to music, singing, snacking, and waiting for 5:30 (that's when my mom picked me up, because that's when my friends had their bus back home to a farther county). The theater entrance had been painted with a mural of old posters for musicals I'd never seen or heard of (Equus, A Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd) and my friend Niky, who even in high school had no concept of self-consciousness or shame, would act out the posters and add a bit of Mystery Science Theater-like commentary, like, "George! I have no eyes!" which indeed, the woman walking across the landscaped poster for A Sunday lacked. My point is twofold; one, my introduction to Sweeney Todd was there, where Niky summarized the plot for me (it's about a pie shop, but the pies are made from dead people), and two, though I once liked musicals, I've since ceased to be moved by their melodramatic majesty, which seems to work best on children, tourists, gays, and old people.

Movie musicals, in general, are travesties (or witness the here unreviewed Everyone Says I Love You. As I've explained before, it's a bad idea to mix singing and dancing with walking and talking, particularly when the music consists of stop-start pop songs. The makers of Sweeney Todd seem to have had the sense to realize this, and therefore made their movie musical like a regular stage set musical, except tailored to the screen (much better tailored, mind you, than those stage-set Shakespearean videos you had to watch in school). The blood is copious, fire engine red, and absurdly squirtiful. There are no group numbers. The music never really stops. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are perfectly matched and delightfully dreadful; their songs together, particularly My Friends, are brilliant. The only truly dreadful dreck is the constantly-reprising Johanna song, crooned by the besotted Anthony at Sweeney Todd's lovely young daughter, imprisoned in a window by the evil Judge Turpin. In all honesty, I had expected a bit more from the art direction (something in the way of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), but any lacking was made up for by Sweeney Todd's thrilling barber chair, which he sets up to hinge backward at the turn of a crank, depositing each dead body onto the basement floor through a flap in the floor. Mrs. Lovett's meat grinder is also rather thrilling.

I never stopped to wonder whether there might be something wrong with me that I responded to this gruesome, goresome tale with the kind of delight usually shown by three year olds for lollipops until I sat down to write this, but I'll blame all that delight on Sondheim's light touch and quick wit (cf. the lyrics for A Little Priest, probably the film's best number).

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