Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) Movie Review
The infamous story of Benjamin Barker, a.k.a Sweeney Todd, who sets up a barber shop down in London which is the basis for a sinister partnership with his fellow tenant, Mrs. Lovett. Based on the hit Broadway musical.
Welcome to Knockout Horror and to day 19 of our 31 Days of Halloween feature. We are getting close to the final run now so let’s go for something completely different. We have already featured one Tim Burton movie in this list in the form of Frankenweenie. So why not check out another?
Starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and the late Alan Rickman. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a great example of Tim Burton at his best. It’s a blood soaked musical with songs that will stick in your head and more of the red stuff than most of the Saw movies. Let’s take a look.
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Following the story of a barber named Benjamin Barker. Arriving back in London after being sent away by a corrupt judge who lusted after his wife. Sweeney Todd sees Barker slice his way through the necks of London residents in his attempts to get revenge on Judge Turpin for ruining his life. Luckily he is assisted in his pursuit by Mrs Lovett who just so happens to need some fresh meat for her failing pie shop.
Now this one isn’t going to be for everyone. I am sure there are a fair few people out there that will skip the movie purely due to Depp in the lead role. But, on top of that, it is simply the fact that it is a musical that will put a bunch of people off. While very much a horror, characters constantly breaking out into song will cause pause for a lot of people. For those of us who don’t mind the blending of genres, however. Sweeney Todd is a fantastic movie.
A Fascinating History
There’s an interesting history at the heart of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Tim Burton caught a showing of the Stephen Sondheim stage version of Sweeney Todd in London back in the early 80’s. Burton was not a fan of musicals but was so struck by the cinematic qualities of Sweeney Todd and the blending of music with the macabre. That he watched the production on three subsequent nights and spent the better part of 20 plus years dreaming of bringing it to the big screen.
Once Burton had his big break in the middle 80’s. He approached Sondheim about making a film version but nothing actually ended up coming of it. I mean, let’s be real, Burton was pretty busy with making great movies like Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and Ed Wood. Fast forward to the early 2000s and director Sam Mendes was in the middle of working on a big screen version of the musical. Mendes was collaborating with writer John Logan after obtaining Sondheim’s approval and the wheels were very much in motion.
In something of a fortuitous twist of fate. Burton’s version of Ripley’s Believe it or Not had fallen through due to budget issues. And Mendes decided to head off to direct Jarhead. Leaving Tim Burton to take up the helm of Sweeney Todd and finally bring his 20 plus year dream to life. Logan and Burton reworked the screenplay to up the pace of the movie. Pushing some elements of the musical to the backdrop and bringing others forward. And the rest is history.
An All Star Cast
Sondheim, typically fiercely protective of his work, maintained some creative control over the casting of the movie. Despite this, Tim Burton insisted on including Johnny Depp in the role of Sweeney Todd himself. A move that concerned Sondheim due to Depp’s non-musical background and more rock orientated vocals. Burton’s partner, at the time, Helena Bonham Carter was cast to play Mrs Lovett. A move which worried Carter due to thoughts of nepotism. Prompting her to send a dozen or more audition tapes to Sondheim showing that she was capable in the role. A move that paid off as Sondheim was overjoyed with her vocals.
Ali G and Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen performed the entire score of Fiddler on the Roof for Burton in a successful attempt to win a part. Ed Sanders was brought on board to play Toby in a casting that goes against the typically older portrayal of Toby’s character. Jayne Wisener auditioned using pictures of herself without makeup to prove that she could look younger than 19. And popular British actors Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Anthony Head were added to the cast to round things off. The result was one of the only movie adaptations of his work that Sondheim approves of.
Gory Musical Fun
Interesting history aside, the movie is just a hell of a lot of fun. If you aren’t a fan of musicals, Sweeney Todd probably won’t do much to change your mind. But if you enjoy them then this is one of the more interesting ones. Sweeney Todd’s simple story of revenge is a classic one and extremely easy to enjoy. The fact that it is elaborated on through song after song makes for a rather unique experience.
The score is legitimately enjoyable. Reusing the songs from the original musical in new compositions. This was one of only three movies in which Burton didn’t collaborate with Danny Elfman. That doesn’t stop Sweeney Todd from feeling very much like a Tim Burton movie, though. The musical numbers are punchy and grandiose while maintaining a sinister sense of humour and fantastic comedy timing. Choruses are cut here and there to keep the plot moving but it all works tremendously well.
Depp is just about adequate when called upon to elicit emotional belters and his number with Alan Rickman’s character is of particular note for how memorable and enjoyable it is. But it is Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs Lovett that really stands out. With Carter absolutely nailing it on song after song. It’s impossible not to marvel at her sense of rhythm and timing in the fantastic The Worst Pies in London. She is fantastic throughout.
Still Very Much a Horror
Sweeney Todd doesn’t sacrifice frights for songs, though. There are buckets of gore and a ton of violence. Burton doesn’t relent once with his presentation of the red stuff which keeps the movie firmly in horror territory. This is a very dark movie that is full of people with twisted motivations and backward ideals. Each of which is keen to ruin life for the other. Just as Todd reminds us with the opening track There’s No Place Like London. Despite all the singing and bouncy musical numbers. The story is both affecting and, even, moving.
As far as horror musicals go, it’s hard to think of a single one that stands alongside Sweeney Todd. It’s one of those movies that feels like the only person who could have made it is Tim Burton. It is quintessential Burton from the clothes the character’s wear to the Gothic presentation and the filters colouring the screen. It’s awesome stuff and simply a great option for something truly different this Halloween.
Final Thoughts and Score
Let’s be honest, if you don’t like musicals. There is no way Sweeney Todd is going to change your mind. But if you don’t mind something different, then Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a tremendous option. It’s is witty, enjoyable, full of gore, and littered with catchy musical numbers. Acting is fantastic throughout and the movie is Tim Burton through and through. One of my all time favourite movies and a great October option.