Music and razor madness in ‘Sweeney Todd’


Anyone who loved Johnny Depp in his “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies should understand two things about “Sweeney Todd.” First, although Depp is just as quirky in his portrayal of a barber out for revenge, this new role is far darker. Second, “Sweeney Todd” is based on Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” and in addition to an occasional outburst of song, the movie is a continuous out-spurting of blood. It’s quite gory at times.

Benjamin Barker (Depp) has just returned home to London after 15 years of false imprisonment in Australia. He’s already seeking revenge on judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) for sending him away when Benjamin learns the Judge has also stolen his wife, Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly), and daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), and locked them away inside his home.

With little funds to set up new beginnings, Benjamin finds a room above Mrs. Lovett’s (Helena Bonham Carter) Bake Shop, where she’s known for the “worst pies” in London. Hint: deeper into the darkness of this film, those pies become quite the rage. Calling himself Sweeney Todd, Benjamin sets up shop, resuming his practice as a barber with the most exquisite set of razors one could find.

When his first customer, Signor Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen), comes for a shave, he recognizes Benjamin for who he is. Sweeney quickly slits his throat and then worries about what to do with the body. Mrs. Lovett suggests using it as the new ingredient for her pies, thus killing two birds with one stone.

Mrs. Lovett informs Sweeney his wife is dead, but that Turpin is now interested in Johanna. Worried about how to rescue his daughter, Sweeney discovers she has a suitor. Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), a young lad he met on the ship coming home, has seen Johanna in the window, heard her beautiful voice and fallen instantly in love.

The music in “Sweeney Todd” is not off-putting or overdone. Neither Depp nor Bonham Carter are exceptional singers, but they carry off their vocal tasks well enough. Depp actually is not foreign to singing; he belonged to a band called The Kids in the 1980s. He recorded the songs from the film on a CD which he sent to director Tim Burton and producer Richard Zanuck. After hearing Depp’s voice, both men knew it would work.

Bonham Carter wanted the role so badly, she not only had to convince her partner, Burton, to let her play Mrs. Lovett, but also spent three months taking singing lessons before Burton and Sondheim gave their approval.

Depp and Burton made five previous movies together before “Sweeney Todd,” so they are very intimate in their collaboration.

“Johnny looks to Tim for guidance, and Tim looks to Johnny for taking what he has outlined and pushing it further,” Zanuck said. “They’re both at the top of their game, so the combination is wonderful in terms of freshness and inventiveness.”

That inventiveness certainly comes in handy when transforming from an aberrant sea-faring pirate to a serial killer.

“Sweeney’s obviously a dark figure,” Depp said, “but I think quite a sensitive figure. He has experienced something very dark and traumatic in his life, a grave injustice. I always saw him as a victim who turns around and becomes a murderer, and is not all there.”

Although Depp has played some serious roles, fans love his unique comedic abilities. Luckily, ominous theme aside, there’s plenty of humor in “Sweeney Todd.” Alan Rickman and his henchman (Timothy Spall) heighten the merriment even more, and the young lovers add the only light moments to the story. However, there’s nothing warmhearted about the key characters. The marvelous makeup makes both Depp and Bonham Carter look quite dead, but so much of the dialogue, songs and actions are so absurd you can’t help laughing at them.

With “Sweeney Todd,” Burton has produced another masterpiece, and the production design by Dante Ferretti is outstanding. Still, there are those numerous scenes - too many for me - of throat cutting and blood spurting. If you can handle that, “Sweeney Todd” might be a movie to check out after the glow of the holiday bulbs has dimmed.