After months of breathless anticipation — Can Johnny Depp sing? Has director Tim Burton used Sweeney Todd's vile razor to cut out the heart and soul of a classic by gutting one hour of the original Broadway musical? — Burton finally unveiled a huge slice (17 minutes) of his film adaptation of a Broadway masterpiece to a screaming crowd at Lincoln Center Wednesday night.
The verdict based upon the crowd's riotous ovation at the end: "Sweeney Todd" is a serious contender to win the Oscar for best picture, just as I've been telling you for months.
Oh, yes, and Johnny handles the singing just fine. He'll never croon arias at the Metropolitan Opera, but he manages to carry the tunes and thus sustain the dramatic thrust of a story that would be as emptied of blood as Sweeney's victims if he didn't. Clearly, he muddles through here and there and no doubt much digital trickery was used in the sound edit bay after filming to fix weak spots, but he's no Lucy Ball butchering "Mame," hallelujah. Even at those peak moments when he can't dodge aiming for the high notes of "Joanna" — while "Sweeney" Broadway nuts like me wince in the audience, knowing they're coming, and fearing the worst — he nails it. Not magnificently, not like when Tony winner Len Cariou or Emmy winner George Hearn performed the score with roof-rattling bravado, but capably.
In a very large way, Burton re-invented the Broadway Sweeney. Sweeney's no longer a bedraggled, haggard, frumpy old man who'd be little noticed on the streets of old London, but rather a dashing young Johnny Depp with a shock of white hair that sprung from his brain after suffering the horror of being imprisoned for 18 years on a bogus charge. (That's the reason Depp gives for his skunk hair look — it's really not meant to be a rip-off of "Bride of Frankenstein," he claims.)
And much of Mrs. Lovett's role has been slashed out, deliberately, even though she was largely the heart and soul of the original musical and even though the part is now played on screen by Burton's fiancé, Helena Bonham Carter. Curiously, Mrs. Lovett is reinvented dramatically, too — she isn't noticeably wacko on film like she was portrayed on stage by Angela Lansbury with goofy expressions, crossed eyes and squealing voice. Carter's Mrs. Lovett seems to be a centered, lonely woman with confidence and carriage, who is still hopelessly smitten with a fiend who barely realizes she's near. If you've never seen the stage musical, I recommend highly that you purchase a DVD of the L.A. production that was filmed by Showtime in 1982 starring Lansbury and Hearn (who took over Sweeney's role, which Cariou pioneered on Broadway) — CLICK HERE to see it at Amazon.com — so you can experience both, vastly different versions of a masterwork.
Burton has re-imagined this Sweeney as a classic Hollywood horror movie in the old melodramatic tradition of Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney and it works, creepily so. Listen to his explanation in the podcast chat we had backstage before the screening (CLICK HERE).
But that is what makes this film, as brilliant as it seems to be, an Oscar cliffhanger. Academy voters don't choose horror movies for best picture — they even spurned the few classics that managed to get nominated like "The Exorcist," but they have picked violent movies like last year's "The Departed" and others that celebrated a murderous fiend like Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs." Maybe this time they can now, finally, accept a genre film of the classic horror variety since "Sweeney Todd" proved itself as high art on Broadway first.
Which brings us to the most horrible part of this horror film: the generous spouts and fountains and floods and gushes of blood we see over and over as Sweeney applies his razor to the throats of witless men who innocently step into his upstairs barber shop for a shave.
Yes, the scenes are disgustingly graphic. Burton's camera gets up close so the blood spits right out at the audience as the eyes of Sweeney's victims bug out in terror. But the scenes are so outrageous that they seem unreal, repeated one after another as Sweeney sings of his longing love for his daughter held captive by evil Judge Turpin who sent Sweeney to prison so he could steal his wife. Believe it or not, those throat-slashing scenes aren't the most shocking parts. Worse — what makes the audience shriek and jump from their seats — is watching the bodies drop to the basement through a trap door, landing on their heads, going splat, then we hear the slashed necks crack. Again and again. You can't believe the audacity of this filmmaker as you watch. And you can't help but love Burton for making you cheer on every next flick of Sweeney's revenge-wreaking razor.
If those notoriously squeamish academy members can swallow all the blood and endure the cracking necks in "Sweeney," it will not be another "Dreamgirls," not another Broadway adaptation that flops at the Oscars. This one is a real guys' musical. The mistake I made last year believing so strongly in "Dreamgirls" was forgetting who does the Oscar voting: old white guys who can't, or refuse to, empathize with hip, young black chicks. Those guys have worked long years in a cutthroat biz in Hollywood — Sweeney's their man.
And let us not forget the last musical to win best picture — "Chicago" — a film that asked its audience to cheer on people to get away with murder.