A hullabaloo arose in 1924 when sex symbol Rudolph Valentino, nicknamed The Shiek, was seen sporting a Van Dyke beard, cultivated for his upcoming role in The Hooded Falcon. The Barbers of America, fearing a loss of business if the famous actor made beards chic, threatened to boycott his films unless he shaved his beard.
Now comes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, surely to be a target of another nation-wide barber boycott for it’s depiction of hairstylists as bloodthirsty fiends.
Sweeney Todd, the latest collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp is the darkest musical you’ll likely ever see, a vivid restaging of the 1979 Stephen Sondheim stage musical that doesn’t spare the gore. Based on the classic penny dreadful story about a barber who slits the throats of his clients and his accomplice who then grinds up the bodies and turns them into meat pies, the tale doesn’t seem to lend itself to a musical treatment. The hills are alive with the sound of… gushing blood?
In fact, the musical has always divided audiences. On the opening night of its original Broadway run half the audience reportedly left in disgust at intermission but the show was a hit nonetheless and ran for a healthy 557 performances. The movie is likely to be as divisive. It’s bloody—geysers of arterial plasma spurt from slashed throats before the sliced bodies are unceremoniously dumped down a chute to land on crushed skulls with a sickening thud—but in the best Grand Guignol tradition it’s bleakly beautiful.
In the lead role is Johnny Depp in his sixth partnering with Burton. The deranged barber is another in a long line of risky roles from the actor who once said he would do anything for Burton, adding “If he wants me to have sex with an aardvark in one of his next movies, then I will do that.”
Luckily there’s no bestiality in Sweeney Todd, but that’s about the only sin left undone. Depp’s Sweeney—nee Benjamin Barker—looks like one of the characters from The Corpse Bride come to life. He’s so pale he makes Nicole Kidman look sun burnt and the stripe of grey in his hair brings to mind a German Expressionist version of Jay Leno. Wrongly imprisoned for fifteen years by a judge who coveted his wife, Todd has come back to London with revenge on his mind. His retribution takes the form of a bloody ballet of throat slashing unparalleled since the days of Freddy and Jason. Depp’s memorable performance heightens the drama, perfectly capturing the pent up rage of a man whose life is being overtaken by obsession.
Balancing out the gore is Sondheim’s intriguing light operetta score and Helena Bonham Carter’s take on Mrs. Lovett, the cannibal baker. Before the movie opened online pundits were commenting that she was only cast because she’s Mrs. Tim Burton. Not only is that dismissive and rude, it’s also far from the truth. Living with the director may have given her better access to the part, but she is the perfect choice from her Victoriana Goth looks to the much needed light touch she brings to the grim proceedings.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street isn’t your father’s musical, but it is beautifully realized vision from one of the most interesting director / actor teams working today.