Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on March 20, 2008, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
Helena Bonham Carter says that Tim Burton “hates musicals” in one of the featurettes on the Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street two-DVD set, but you’d never know it from looking at the filmmaker’s résumé. From the “Day-O” scene in Beetlejuice to The Nightmare Before Christmas to this latest feature, musical numbers have played an important role in Burton’s genre work, though neither the horror nor the song elements have been as strong as they are in Sweeney Todd. Adapting the popular Stephen Sondheim Broadway play and making it his own (with the help of screenwriter John Logan), Burton weaves an entrancing, sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious spell from the crimson-dripping opening titles to the startling finale.
The movie’s achievement is especially noteworthy considering that stars Johnny Depp, as the razor-wielding Sweeney, and Carter, as Mrs. Lovett, who bakes his victims’ flesh into pies, had never sung on film before either (Depp was dubbed for his performances in Cry-Baby). In fact, as we learn on the disc, the movie was well into preparation before anyone involved heard Depp perform a tune. Yet both contribute rich, full-blooded performances, fully inhabiting their obsessive, off-kilter characters and conveying a wide range of emotions through Sondheim and Logan’s words. They receive strong support from Alan Rickman, who as the conniving Judge Turpin makes even the word “gander” sound lascivious, Timothy Spall as Turpin’s sleazy partner-in-crime and Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen, wrapping his tongue around another outrageous accent as Italian rival barber Pirelli.
As is to be expected from a modern period piece/musical/big-ticket genre film, the production values are top-class all the way, including Dante Ferretti’s Oscar-winning production design and Colleen Atwood’s costumes, and they’re given their due in the DVD’s widescreen transfer. As sharp as Sweeney’s blades even in the grottiest settings (and there are a lot of ’em in this film), it bears impressive shades of darkness and faithfully reproduces the monochromatic color scheme, shot through with only occasional bright colors (Pirelli’s blue costume and, of course, the red that spurts when Sweeney goes to work on his customers). The sound, needless to say, is equally and particularly important here, and the rich Dolby Digital 5.1 audio doesn’t disappoint.
Those who pick up the simultaneously available single disc of Sweeney Todd will still get one of the best supplements, the half-hour Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd. Focusing on how the titular trio collaborated to bring Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett to onscreen life, it starts by revealing their longtime interest in the characters: The director first gave Depp a Sweeney CD six years before the film finally went ahead, and Carter was obsessed with Lovett from a young age. There’s a touch of “be careful what you wish for” as we’re treated to footage of the actress recording “By the Sea” (“It’s very difficult to breathe here; [Sondheim] hasn’t left a lot of room”) and Carter noting the challenges of timing her complex onscreen actions to her prerecorded song performances. The supporting players get some attention as well, with Burton recalling Cohen’s hilarious audition with tunes from Fiddler on the Roof; he says he wishes it had been videotaped, and he’s not alone.
Disc two includes a fine collection of featurettes that cover specific elements of the Sweeney production, as well as the tale’s background. The latter are actually of the greatest interest, as Sweeney’s London takes a look at the squalid side of the city’s history, along the way revealing the gruesome origins of the traditional barber pole, while Sweeney Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber chronicles the character through historian and author interviews and vintage illustrations. (It’s pointed out here that the villain was partially inspired by 16th-century Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean, who also influenced The Hills Have Eyes and other contemporary chillers, and that the flesheating which some might find Sweeney’s most shocking element was actually a staple of many traditional fairy tales.) Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition takes a fascinating look at the famous French showcase for onstage gore, noting its origins as “naturalist” drama, its influence on early Hollywood fright fare and how it fell out of favor in the wake of the horrors of WWII.
Focusing more specifically on the movie at hand, Designs for a Demon Barber gives Atwood, Ferretti and set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo (the latter two’s heavily accented English is subtitled) a chance to show off their stuff, while A Bloody Business has prosthetics creator Neal Scanlan explaining the, um, execution of the assorted throat-slashings, some of which had to be pulled off in the midst of musical numbers without, er, cuts. For makeup FX fans, the highlight of the disc may well be an in-shop demonstration of Scanlan and his team’s splattery handiwork, captured by a camera whose protective plastic peeks into the corner of the frame. And the composer/lyricist discusses his own fascination with the character in Musical Mayhem: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. After all this, the generic The Making of Sweeney Todd is pretty much superfluous, its only unique offering being an interview with “food stylist” Katherine Tidy, who reveals that she had to create over 1,000 pies for the feature.
This disc additionally offers a pair of photo and image galleries, one of which, The Razor’s Refrain, is backed by selections from the score. On a lighthearted note, Burton and Depp answer fan queries in a Moviefone Unscripted segment, and a Sweeney Todd Press Conference seems to have been edited to emphasize the funniest responses from Burton, producer Richard Zanuck and the cast. Zanuck reminds that he did The Sound of Music followed by “three flops” in the musical genre, after which he vowed never to do a movie of that kind again—but it’s inarguable that he picked the right project to return to the form.