Updated: Jul 30, 2022
How do you tell a story about a barber who’s secretly a serial killer who kills his customers and has their bodies cooked into meat pies? Through a musical of course! While making a musical on a fictional serial killer doesn’t spell doom for a film, it’s not the first medium I imagined would be used to tell the story of Sweeney Todd. Despite this, the story of Sweeney Todd had been adapted to the stage several times. However, it wasn’t until 2006 when Tim Burton wished to create a musical. With the creative direction of Burton and a cast of dark wizards from Harry Potter, could this film actually pull off well-crafted storytelling with the typical musical story beats?
Benjamin Barker (played by Johnny Depp) is a former barber who was falsely exiled by Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman) because he wanted to get with Barker’s wife. Out for vengeance, Barker now going by the name of Sweeney Todd, begins a barbershop in London hoping to kill Turpin. He runs into Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham-Carter), a shopkeeper who sells “the worst pies of London.” Together, the two work together as Todd kills his customers while Lovett cooks their remains into meat pies for her unsuspecting customers.
When I first saw the poster for this movie, I wasn’t surprised that Tim Burton was the director. However, I didn’t expect the movie to be a musical. Even more surprising was the casting of Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. Although I expected Depp to pull off the brooding loner archetype, what I didn’t expect was how good of a singer he is. Before production of the film, Depp was not a singer and had to undergo singing lessons in preparation for the role of Sweeney Todd. While hiring actors without a singing background in a musical is a risky move that often doesn’t pay off (looking at you, Phantom of the Opera), in the case of Sweeney Todd, it certainly does. Depp has an extraordinary voice that not only conveys his anger but also the deep sadness he feels after losing his wife and daughter. After the defamation lawsuit against him by someone I will not name, Johnny Depp was rocking on stage in London. More power to you Johnny!
But besides Depp’s vocal performance, I also enjoyed Helena Bonham-Carter and Alan Rickman’s singing. Despite Bonham-Carter claiming that she isn’t a strong singer, her singing ability shines in this movie. Her voice brings a calming tone to the film whenever the tension gets too high. And although he didn’t have many singing scenes, Alan Rickman’s iconic voice was ever so soothing despite Rickman being the film’s antagonist. It truly goes to show his talent as an actor.
Visually speaking, the cinematography and color-grading is distinctly Burton at his finest. The overall look of the film has a very Gothic look to it, which makes me think of Batman Returns. Additionally, the opening credits scene showcases a plethora of turning gears meant to be the mechanism for Todd’s disposal of his murdered customers reminded me of the intro sequence of Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Speaking of Del Toro, one thing I realized is how similar Burton and Del Toro are. Although their direction style and film’s color palette are different, the two both feature plenty of creative visuals, monsters and a protagonist who’s either a brooding loner or reluctant hero. The only difference is Del Toro never made an unsuccessful Planet of the Apes remake.
Many Broadway or movie musicals are typically very happy and bright with their tone and feel, Sweeney Todd is the direct opposite, being dark and depressing throughout. This by no means makes the musical any less engrossing; it is not every day that a musical comes around and takes a chance on a different kind of story and tone, but it works in the case of Sweeney Todd. Even having our protagonist be a serial killer, I didn't think I’d be rooting for one ever yet here we are.
One aspect of the film that could’ve been strengthened was Anthony and Johanna’s relationship. While Jamie Campbell Bower did a good job as Anthony and I liked his clear, yet soft singing voice, I felt that he wasn’t in the film long enough for his character to be fleshed out. Additionally, why did he fall in love with Johanna? He just saw her in her room from outside her window and all of a sudden, BAM! Instant love! Maybe their romance was explained better in the play, but it was glossed over in the film. Another aspect of the film that I didn’t like was how fake the blood looked. Whenever Todd slit the throats of his customers, it looks like there are hoses of blood hidden in their throats, almost reminiscent of BloodRayne. Scenes like that momentarily took me out of the film.
In conclusion, 2007’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a well-crafted musical that works surprisingly in a darker setting. With stellar direction from Burton and beautiful vocal performances from the entire cast, it’s not surprising why this film was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards and won Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy and Johnny Depp won Best Actor in addition to winning an Academy Award for Best Art Direction. As time goes by, this film remains one of Tim Burton's strongest films and really shows off his skills as a director.
Co-Written by: Noah Kloss