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Thursday, February 14, 2008


Sweeney Todd readies himself for the world's largest line of cocaine.

Something that may come as a bit of a shock to regular readers of my ramblings, rantings and drivel is that Yer Bunche was weaned on musicals. There was plenty of pop music to be had on the radio and a little bit in my parents’ record collection along with smatterings of jazz and soul, but my mother had a fair collection of musical soundtracks, both movie versions and original Broadway casts. Among the first music I remember absorbing were the albums for SOUTH PACIFIC, WEST SIDE STORY, MY FAIR LADY, and my favorite by a landslide out of that lot, HAIR; that one rocked, plus it was fun to wander about the house singing loudly about psychedelic drugs, “colored spades,” interracial sex, sodomy, fellatio, and “sixteen-year-old virgins” while having no idea what any of it meant (I was five).

Then I was exposed to movie musicals, and swiftly discovered they were a seriously mixed bag. Genre entries created for the screen like THE WIZARD OF OZ and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN fused the Broadway structure with the non-stagebound freedom allowed by the camera and worked to spectacular effect, using thespians who could actually sing and dance as well as act, an element that ensured those films cinema immortality for good reason. But there were many adaptations of Broadway hits that fizzled rather than sizzled when they hit the screen; for every ON THE TOWN or WEST SIDE STORY (possibly the greatest B’way to H’wood translation) there was a L’IL ABNER or a SOUTH PACIFIC to offset the excellence. Mediocrity or outright awfulness were the defining characteristics of far too many big screen musical translations, such as PAINT YOUR WAGON (Lee Marvin’s rendition of “I Was Born Under A Wanderin’ Star” must be experienced to be believed), A CHORUS LINE (a turgid mess that made it to the screen nearly two decades after its impact had meaning on stage), CAMELOT, MAN OF LA MANCHA (which featured some of the worst miscasting in film history), HAIR, and many others, each peopled with talented casts whose lack of musical theater training sank each film (Okay, the cast of A CHORUS LINE could at least dance).


I saw SWEENEY TODD during its original Broadway run and was immediately won over by its successful attempt at chucking the nauseating feelgood pablum that mired the majority of shows, and its embracing of dark, gory, and offensive material as fodder for live entertainment. The story of a wronged barber in Victorian-era London and his quest for vengeance, aided by a meat pie shop-proprietor and their side business that turns many of the London populace into unwitting cannibals, was operatic, loaded with pitch black humor, bombastic tunes, gore fountaining from the razor-slashed necks of the title character’s victims, one of two choreographed rape scenes that I can recall in a musical (MAN OF LA MANCHA featuring the other one), and stunning performances from all involved, especially George Hearn and Angela Lansbury (during her pre-MURDER SHE WROTE days). It was smart, evil, bloody, over-the-top, and a truly tragic story, so how could I not have adored it? It remains to this day my favorite musical that I saw during its prime.

It may look poovy, but I'm telling ya, this was the shit.

Now, nearly thirty years after it debuted on the Great White Way, the penny dreadful brought to life hits the screen, helmed by cult director Tim Burton, a creator who gave us such classics as PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and the superlative ED WOOD (and for those of you who are ready to write and tell me I forgot to mention THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, it’s not here because Burton didn’t direct it). But while Burton has certainly shown a visual flair and signature look in his films’ art direction, he has crafted several films that look pretty but are soulless works of pure artifice that boringly meander until the credits finally, mercifully arrive. I felt deeply ripped off by such dead-in-the-water Burton efforts as BATMAN (once eloquently described by a critic as “the greatest act of mass hypnosis in human history”), MARS ATTACKS, SLEEPY HOLLOW, BIG FISH, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, and the execrable “reimagining” of PLANET OF THE APES, so it was with mixed feelings that I approached his SWEENEY TODD. While I loathed about half of the film’s he’s made, I figured he’d be perfect for the overwrought sturm und drang of TODD because its dour flavor and gloomy Victorian setting seemed to mesh perfectly with his sensibilities, so I went in with a fairly open mind.

But then I discovered that while Burton had chosen a dream cast for the film adaptation, he chose actors without a lick of musical theater experience and had them gamely attempt to sing parts that would have been daunting even to those with serious training. His actors all try very hard, but SWEENEY TODD is a musical that is every bit as lively and frenetic as it is gruesome and morbid, and Burton has directed his entire cast to perform as though on Prozac, completely neutering the material. I love Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Alan Rickman, but all of them are wasted here, delivering listless performances that bring to mind “Charles Dickens Night” at Madame Tussaud’s, and no amount of atmospheric visuals or SHOGUN ASSASSIN-level gore (of which there was enough to keep me watching) can disguise what could waggishly be renamed SWEENEY TURD.

And don’t get me started on how they ripped off Johnny Depp’s look in the movie from my man Dave Vanian — lead singer of my second-favorite band, the Damned — during his mid-1980’s proto-Goth days…

Dave Vanian, c. 1985.

Johnny Depp, 2007.

All I can say in summation is that you should give the Tim Burton version a solid miss, especially since the completely excellent Hearn/Lansbury version, shot live in 1982, is available on DVD , thank whatever dark and vengeful gods there may be. TRUST YER BUNCHE and tell Tim Burton to shove this somnolent floater back up his wannabe Edward Gorey ass.


Anonymous said...

We SO utterly disagree about Hair and Big Fish. Don't know about Sweeney, as I have yet to see it. Nice call on the Dave Vanian thing, though - I suspect it was intentional. If nothing else, both of them were riffing off the same influences: Christopher Lee's Dracula, Bela Lugosi's Dracula, Vincent Price's Rodrick Usher, and Conrad Viedt's "Man Who Laughs."

Anonymous said...

bunche, dude,
instantly when you said hollywood musicals hit and miss blah blah, i was already thinking of clint and lee singing their way through polygamy in the goldrush, and how gleefully bad that particular movie is. and then it was amongst the first mentions you give. oh, how the great minds think along parallel lines. i still love paint your wagon just to see the looks on clint's face when he tries to sing. and for when the Chris-Ti-Ans show up and can't seem to figure out just what is going on.
anyway, good call. gonna look for the broadway dvd verson. and hey, big fish was entertaining. just not heavy duty cinema art.
-mike (big)