Saturday, December 22, 2007

Attend the tale of Burton's Todd

From Scissorhands to the razor's edge: Johnny Depp tries out his vocal chops in Sweeney Todd.

The critics have been kind to Tim Burton's film of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. A.O. Scott, of the Times, crowed that it was "something of a masterpiece." "There is an exhileration in every fiber of the film," Roger Ebert swooned. And to the Globe's Ty Burr, the film's spurting jugulars were "a conceptual masterstroke."

But Burr, alas, somewhat gave the critical game away with his opening gambit:

"To devotees of Broadway musicals: Fear not, your beloved Sweeney Todd has come to the screen relatively intact."

Of course only someone who didn't really understand Sweeney Todd could write that; the savage cardiovascular calisthenics of Burton's "vision" (at left) have little to do with the heart of Todd, which operates most lethally at a blithely grim remove from its business. To truly evoke its wittily tortured soul on screen would require a technique based on the brain, not the gut, as well as a method that could find a match for Sondheim's ravishing mix of Marx, the music hall, and the macabre. It's not that Burton's movie is bad, exactly (in fact, it's probably the best we could expect from today's Hollywood). It's just that the movie seems to operate on a separate, parallel track to its score, a kind of odd "image track" that's synched up with the sound but doesn't really embody, elaborate, or expand upon it. If this is the best we can expect from Hollywood, then I think we should also admit it's hopelessly inadequate to the challenges of a masterpiece of the stage.

But of course we can't do that. Indeed, among most of the film reviews, there's an almost touching sense of trying to join the grown-ups' cultural table - or, even more embarrassingly, trying to drag the movie audience to it, too - all while proffering the most amusingly patronizing praise I've read in a long while. Burr tells his audience directly (just to make sure): "This is a musical." Only it's "a bloody brilliant musical." Okay, point taken. Still, Burr is miles more sophisticated than Peter Travers, who piles on the brain-dead kick-ass clich├ęs: Burton "sets a new gold standard for bringing a stage musical to the screen . . . [Burton] knows that what Sondheim composes is considered holy writ. And yet Burton and screenwriter John Logan . . . have deleted songs, abridged characters and sliced an hour off the show's three-hour running time in the name of keeping the tale fixed on Sweeney's need for vengeance." In other words: never mind the bollocks, here's Sweeney!

Of course not everyone's trying to act like an adult. Over at salon, Stephanie Zacharek informs us that she has "no idea what it takes to carry material like this -- to sing songs whose melodies are like meandering, worm-shaped exoskeletons, deliberately fashioned with lots of twists and turns so more words can be crammed in." Wow, lots of words (maybe even words like 'exoskeleton'!) - what a bummer.

Strangely enough, the one thing everyone can agree on is that the singing needs to be excused. Depp, it turns out, is okay - he sings forcefully and can hit the notes (and his acting carries him the rest of the way); Bonham Carter (left) can hit the notes, too, but with not an ounce of breath to spare. The rest of the cast is not much better. And this, as even most of the film critics agree, is the greatest score since the golden age of West Side Story and My Fair Lady. And yet we're stuck with movie actors who can't sing? Why can't they be fucking dubbed? Has the method-actor mania of the Hollywood machine now reached such an extreme that we can't admit our actors aren't capable of delivering a nearly-operatic score? Somebody page Marni Nixon!

Sigh. So this musical screws its score, to varying degrees - the score which is, of course, the reason for doing it at all. Still, a few numbers come over - "Pretty Women" being the most powerful of them (perhaps because it's simply the theatrical scene shot in fluid close-up). Most, however, don't - some (like the show-stopping "Worst Pies in London") lay a complete egg, while others are merely pale shadows of their theatrical selves ("Not While I'm Around," "A Little Priest"). The movie actually improves only one, the relatively minor "By the Sea," which Burton gives a highly amusing fantasy treatment.

Elsewhere you wonder why, exactly, the director "fell in love with" Sondheim's musical, as he claims; like Ty Burr, he doesn't really get it. He misdirects Bonham Carter completely, transforming Mrs. Lovett into one of his standard-issue, ghoulishly sexy waifs (while Mrs. Lovett is actually a bloodily efficient bourgois wannabe), and he doesn't seem to grasp at all the musical's corruscating social vision. To Burton, the idea that man feeds on man is nowhere near as important as the ick factor of actual human flesh sprouting from a meat grinder; indeed, his film operates as a kind of symbol of the excesses of current cinema, in which sensation is end-all and be-all. To be fair, he stages a few sequences with vigor, elicits an eloquently repellent turn from Timothy Spall, and closes with a haunting tableau. But if you haven't really captured either the score or the ideas of the musical, have you really done your job? Only our film critics could think so.

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