Note: This review reveals minor details of the musical/movie’s plot.
Anyone that knows me knows of my love for musicals. RENT, Avenue Q, Phantom of the Opera, Oklahoma, West Side Story; the list goes on and on and I love them all.
Obviously I was thrilled when I heard news that a movie production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street was in the works. Even though I’m pretty unfamiliar with the Broadway rendition, the idea of Tim Burton directing a live-action musical really appealed to me.
Believe it or not, I was pretty skeptical of Johnny Depp playing the lead. Yes, I’m probably one of the 5% of the world that doesn’t see Depp as God’s gift to mankind; in fact, until recently, I wasn’t even convinced of his acting skills (save his earlier works- it all went downhill for me around Sleepy Hollow).
However, it was his acting and (surprise!) singing in Sweeney Todd that led me to give him another chance. Depp isn’t the only shining aspect of the film; Burton’s direction as well as the talents of Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman and newcomer, Jamie Campbell Bower add to the allure of the movie. The film is a great cinematic treat and the accompanying soundtrack is terrific as well.
The soundtrack opens with the aptly sinister-sounding, Opening Title. The instrumental piece, composed by Stephen Sondheim (who is also the composer for the both the original musical and this film adaptation), is a somewhat dark journey of quiet strings, louder horns, and a full orchestra towards the end. The piece sets the perfect mood for the story that’s about to unfold.
We are introduced to two of the main characters in No Place Like London. The song begins quite uplifting and whimsical, and fits in perfectly as young Anthony (Bower) looks forward to arriving in London after a long amount of time on the sea. His jolly words (“I have sailed the world, /Beheld its wonders/From the Dardanelles/To the mountains of Peru/But there’s no place like London!”) are soon quieted by those of his fellow sailor, Benjamin Barker (Depp). Barker has a far more cynical outlook on London, and chalks up their differences in opinion to Anthony being “young and naive”. Barker then segues into his own story (“There was a barber and his wife/And she was beautiful/A foolish barber and his wife/She was his reason for his life/And she was beautiful/And she was virtuous/And he was naive.” Pay close attention- this is foreshadowing!), and the song fades out as the two sailors land on shore and part ways.
The melancholy mood is put to rest with The Worst Pies In London. Barker has traveled around town and made his way to Fleet Street (oooh…more foreshadowing! ;]), and ends up in a completely abandoned and dusty pie shop. The owner, Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter), sings a witty tune about her pies (“The worst pies in London…/Even that’s polite! The worst pies in London!/If you doubt it take a bite!/Is that just, disgusting?/You have to concede it!/It’s nothing but crusting!/Here drink this, you’ll need it.”) that literally kept me laughing the entire time I first saw the movie. Bonham Carter’s delivery of the song is appropriately charming, and the upbeat number is one that’ll be stuck in your head hours after hearing it.
Poor Thing isn’t the most musically memorable song on the soundtrack, but does the service of telling us the story of a “barber and his wife.” (Quick back story- the barber has a beautiful wife, who is coveted by the town’s judge. To get rid of the barber, the judge falsely accuses and arrests him and sends him to life’s sentence in Australia. The judge then lures the barber’s wife over one evening and rapes her, leaving her to poison herself out of despair. The judge then takes the barber’s young daughter in as his ward and future wife). The song ends frantically as Barker reveals that although the old barber is said to be dead, he is still well and alive (finally all the foreshadowing is revealed!)- but now goes under the name of Sweeney Todd, and he’s out to get his vengeance.
My Friends begins as a slow and haunting ballad, and we get our first true glimpse of Depp’s voice. His tone is surprisingly quite pleasant, and though his voice is a bit thin at times, he still manages to sound great on all the songs on the soundtrack. His voice is particularly highlighted in this song as Sweeney Todd (whom Barker will now be referred to as) sings to his barber’s tools- clippers and knives- which are his only friends. Bonham Carter joins in during the second chorus, lightly adding in, “I’m your friend too, Mr. Todd/If only you knew, Mr. Todd/…Always had a fondness for you, I did.” The two of them sound splendid together, and their voices blend perfectly, creating a beautiful, yet eerie melody.
The mood changes up a bit with the whimsical number, Green Finch and Linnett Bird, sung by Sweeney’s daughter, Johanna. Newcomer, Jayne Wisner has quite a pretty voice, but her high-soprano timbre takes a while to get used to (and pretty much knocks me out of the running for playing Johanna in my college’s upcoming fall production of this musical. My range is good- but I can’t hit the high notes in this song without hurting myself and/or making very unattractive- think of the faces John Mayer makes while playing guitar- faces). While singing the song out of her bedroom window/jail cell, young Anthony overhears her and immediately falls in love. Johanna follows, and the song is one of my favorites in the score. From the majestic orchestration to the overly romantic lyrics (“I was half-convinced I’d waken/Satisfied enough to dream you/Happily I was mistaken/Johanna.”) the song barely misses being in the corny and cliched category, and instead winds up on the sweet and endearing chart.
Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir is an upbeat tune in which Mrs. Lovett and Sweeney denounce the charm of a street barber (played by Sasha Baron Cohen), while The Contest allows us to see a still humorous side of Cohen that has nothing to do with Borat. Wait is a soft ballad in which Mrs. Lovett tries to convince Sweeney to let his anger “brew” and wait for the perfect time to act upon his revenge of the judge. Though the ballad is a bit dreary and almost boring at times, Bonham Carter’s vocals are alluring and lovely to listen to.
Sweeney finally gets his chance to meet up with Judge Turpin (Rickman) during Pretty Women. This is, by far, my favorite song in the entire musical. The song starts off quite cheerfully and carefree as Turpin (who has come to Sweeney’s shop for a shave) sings of his merry mood owing to the fact that he’s in love. Sweeney soon joins in, and the two men sing of the world’s greatest gift- “pretty women”. Soon, the melody changes over to a more sinister one, as Sweeney sings in undertone to his clippers (“Now then my friend/Now to your purpose/Patience, enjoy it/Revenge can’t be taken in haste”) and secretly prepares to take this fortune of having Turpin in his chair as his chance to finally get revenge. The song then changes up again, and segues into a pretty waltz, in which both men sing of the charms of pretty women (“How they make a man sing!/Proof of heaven as you’re living/Pretty women! Sir, pretty women!”). Of course, the irony of it all is that the two men are singing about the same woman- Johanna- though Turpin has no idea that Sweeney is the old barber whom is the father of his ward and intended wife. Besides the lyrical and musical charm of the song, Depp and Rickman both sound fantastic together in the track. Rickman’s singing voice is almost exactly the same as his speaking voice- a deep, unaffected baritone- (I kept smiling to myself during this scene in movie as I had several visions of Severus Snape singing)- but fits the character perfectly. His deep voice mixed with Depp’s tenor mixes well, and as the orchestra swells towards the end of the song, so do their voices, and the ending is one that will leave you breathless with anticipation.
Despite his efforts, however, Sweeney falters and is unable to kill Turpin. He laments in Epiphany, which is perhaps my second favorite song on the album. Sweeney’s appropriately angry, and then takes his anger a bit further- by deciding that everyone deserves to die (“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit/And it’s filled with people who are filled with sh-t/And the vermin of the world inhabit it/…For the rest of us death will be a relief/We all deserve to die.”). He then goes on to declare his vengeance yet again, but until then, he’ll rid the world of the rest of the wicked – or anyone else who gets in his way (“And I will get him back even as he gloats/In the meantime I’ll practice on dishonorable throats”). Despite Sweeney’s mania, you do have to feel a bit bad for him (and Depp portrays this quite well in the film), as he has lost his wife, and his only daughter is now the prisoner of his arch-nemesis.
A Little Priest continues on with some of the musical themes from the earlier Worst Pies In London as Mrs. Lovett has an epiphany of her own (I’ll leave it as a surprise for those of you who have yet to see the musical/movie/listen to the soundtrack). The upbeat number is another duet between Bonham Carter and Depp, and the two, once again, sound splendid together. Johanna gets a reprise, this time mainly as a duet between Sweeney and Anthony, as they both continue to long for Johanna. Anthony’s original Johanna theme is used again and one of the themes used in Pretty Women is brought back as Sweeney expresses his love for his long-lost daughter. The intermingling of the two songs is flawlessly beautiful, and has a very calming effect. Meanwhile, a beggar woman (Laura Michelle Kelly) shouts out from the streets below, and while her part in the song is later integral to the story’s plot, I can’t help but find her voice grating and annoying. Either way, Bower’s vocals shine during the track, and his strongly soothing vocals are convincing of Anthony’s love for the yellow-haired beauty that he sings for.
The last of the album’s standouts is a solo number from Mrs. Lovett, in which she dreams of herself and Sweeney’s wedding down By The Sea. The song begins using the same themes associated with Mrs. Lovett, and then fading into a bouncy number that’s both sweet and merry (“By the sea, Mr. Todd, that’s the life I covet/By the sea, Mr. Todd, ooh, I know you’d love it!/You and me, Mr. T, we could be alone/In a house wot we’d almost own/Down by the sea!/Wouldn’t that be smashing?”) but keeps in with the movie’s overall dark theme by Sweeney’s deadpan responses to Mrs. Lovett’s enthusiastic declarations of love.
The album comes to a kind of lackluster close with the sentimental, albeit tedious, ballad Not While I’m Around. The first part of the song is sung by Tobias (Edward Sanders), the young apprentice to the street barber, whom winds up living with Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. Tobias and Mrs. Lovett have developed a mother/son relationship by this part of the story, and the song is used to show Tobias’ devotion (and vice versa, as Mrs. Lovett joins in towards the end) to her. Sanders’ young voice reminds me of Charlie Buckett’s voice in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, which isn’t necessarily a bad or good thing. My main complaint with the song is that it’s too dull of an ending to such a magnificent soundtrack.*
All in all, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is a wonderful film, with an amazing soundtrack to match. Depp, Bonham Carter, Rickman, and Bower all have excellent voices, and paired with Sondheim’s phenomenal lyrics and score, create an outstanding album that’s definitely worth buying.
1. Opening Title
2. No Place Like London
3. The Worst Pies in London
4. Poor Thing
5. My Friends
6. Green Finch & Linnett Bird
8. Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir
9. The Contest
11. Pretty Women
13. A Little Priest
15. God, That s Good!
16. By the Sea
17. Not While I’m Around
I own the “highlights” version of the soundtrack. The Deluxe Complete edition includes three additional songs cut from this version, as well as lengthened versions of most of the songs on the soundtrack. Although I usually recommend buying the Deluxe edition of any movie soundtrack, this time around, I’d say you might as well save yourself a few bucks and buy the highlights version- you aren’t really getting much more with the “deluxe” edition.