Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Sweeney Todd: At Last, My Film is Complete Again

Tim Burton, who is both a film director and an idea, is bringing Sweeney Todd to the screen.

He's got a tough row to hoe here. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a folk tale which goes back to the industrial age itself, though it's most famous as a dark, dark (really very dark) musical by Steven Sondheim. It's the story of an expatriot barber who returns to London under an assumed name to avenge the death of his wife at the hands of a cruel and hypocritical judge. He joins forces with a pub owner, and his indiscriminate blood-lust provides free meat for her pies, which become famous among inadvertant cannibals all over London.

I've listen to the cast album for years. It's a brilliant score, swooping from romantic to terrifying like the arc of a razor. It's nervous music, often punctuated by an intolerable steam whistle. The music serves as a perfect bed of nails to the phenomenal Sondheimian wordplay, 19th-century vernacular which sounds perfectly natural yet somehow rhymes, often internally, and is rife with poetic metaphors and ugly truths about the human condition. Oh, and it's kind of rangy.

Just like with Pink Floyd The Wall, I already have a perfectly usable movie in my head of this score. It's cast with unknowns and shot mostly using silent film equipment, perhaps because the acting style matches the operatic mood swings of the piece.

Still, if anybody is qualified to make a movie of this thing, it's Burton. Sometimes Burton and the project are a bad match (PLANET OF THE APES, for example, or BATMAN) but sometimes it's right on. Burton has (I hope) the perfect blend of morbid humor and crowd-pleaser instincts to pull off this musical. It's said Johnny Depp is going to be cast as Todd, and that could be a problem. Depp can do anything except play normal, but the score is written for a smokey-voiced baritone. Then again, maybe he can do that too.

That leaves Mrs. Lovett, the pie maker. Angela Lansbury owns that piece, but it's 30 years later and maybe she could consider passing it down. I can't imagine who could do it - you have to be amoral, deliver a punchline, swoon over Todd and have a 3 octave range, usually all in the same line of text. Burton will probably have to go outside the usual players for her. Hey... Beyonce! Okay, I'll keep working on it. The rest of the cast - well, anyone can play the young lovers (hey... Beyonce!) and the Judge barely even sings. I bet De Niro could pull of Judge Turpin.

I bet the razors get the most screen time.

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