‘Sweeney Todd’ on screen: Nice slice

The movies have not been all that kind to Stephen Sondheim.

His early Broadway hits, for which he supplied lyrics only, West Side Story and Gypsy, became classic studio musicals (with West Side Story being a movie for the ages and Gypsy being an interesting movie with some good work by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood).

But once Sondheim emerged as SONDHEIM, cinema got a little tricky. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) cut about half of the songs, and let’s not even talk about the movie of A Little Night Music (1978). His incidental music for Stavisky and Reds is lovely, but Sondheim is best when he’s pairing music and words.

Sondheim did win an Academy Award for “Sooner or Later,” one of five songs he contributed to the 1990 Warren Beatty version of Dick Tracy, so he has some film pedigree (compared to his seven some Tony Awards, but Sondheim’s theatrical pedigree has never been in question).

Given the Sondheim-cinema track record, lowered expectations might be considered acceptable for the new Sweeney Todd movie from the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp team (this is their fifth collaboration after Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Well, I’m here to tell you that heightened expectations are OK. I saw Sweeney Todd last week and was delighted and horrified – a good reaction for Sweeney.

The thing that amazed me most is how faithful Burton is to Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Broadway musical (which is in turn based on a Christopher Bond play). You wouldn’t know it from the trailers, but this Sweeney is a full-blown movie musical with as much (if not more) singing than talking.

Earlier this fall, the Bay Area got a taste of the Sweeney Broadway revival, which pared down the orchestrations so that the actors could play their own instruments. That stage version had its merits (attention to Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, for one), but oh, the lush, glorious orchestrations in the movie (courtesy of Jonathan Tunick), conducted by Paul Gemignani.

Those massive, bone-rattling movie theater sound systems are put to wondrous effect as Sondheim’s dark, chilling score pours out of them. This is one thing movies can do better than Broadway – a massive orchestra playing so loudly you feel every instrument and note.

Most discussions I’ve had about this movie Sweeney have begun with one question: How are the voices? And my answer is: fine. Not great. Not Broadway. But fine in the context of the movie. Depp’s Sweeney, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who wields straight razors and slices necks like a jungle explorer clearing a path, has an appealing pop-rock voice with touches of early David Bowie.

Depp’s co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, isn’t quite as successful. Her wispy vocals don’t really register. In fact, Bonham Carter is miscast. Her Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who turns Sweeney’s victims into deliciously greasy meat pies, is simply too sexy. No matter how much dark makeup they slather on her eyes, no matter how gaunt and pale they make her, she’s still sexy.

An older, more desperate Mrs. Lovett makes more sense in the context of the story. She’s smart enough to know how to woo Sweeney and desperate enough to do horrible things simply because she has run out of options. Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is just too young and hot to be at the end of her rope.

Still, she looks great, and because Burton’s approach has so much to do with creating a sinister gothic look, looking good is half the battle.

The supporting cast is stellar. Hard to go wrong with Alan Rickman (as the creepily sexy Judge Turpin) and Sacha Baron Cohen (as Signor Adolfo Pirelli), both of whom appear to be having a great time being bad. Jamie Campbell Bower is an impressive Anthony (and he’s only 19), and Jayne Wisener (another youngster at 20) is an angelic Johanna (though in her early scenes she looks a little like one of the big-eyed aliens at the end of Close Encounters). Special mention must be made of seemingly older-than-his-years Ed Sanders as Toby. He’s all of about 14 years old, and he more than holds up his end of the movie (which is fairly significant). He and Bonham Carter are wonderful together on “Not While I’m Around.”

When making holiday plans to slice and dice with Sweeney, keep in mind that this musical is rated R for very good reason. The blood flows like pub ale, and Sweeney’s specially rigged barber’s chair is incredibly violent. Even though the gore is self-consciously theatrical, it still packs a wallop. This is the bloodiest movie musical since Can’t Stop the Music.

At long last, Stephen Sondheim’s genius has been captured on film in a way that doesn’t cheapen or apologize or dumb down.

Here’s a Sweeney Todd behind-the-scenes teaser to whet your whistle.

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