There is no question what DVD you should snatch up this week. It’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The Two-Disc Special Edition is that rare DVD package that actually deserves to be called “special.” This is one of the best DVDs of the year, packed with juicy bonus features and showcasing sound and image that set a new gold standard. Directed by Tim Burton and starring his muse, Johnny Depp, the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway classic is a bloody wonder, intimate and epic, horrific and heart-rending. Depp received an Oscar nomination as Best Actor and he deserved to win if Daniel Day Lewis hadn’t blown the category away in There Will Be Blood (a title that could fit this movie as well).
Depp plays Sweeney Todd, the serial-killing barber who slits the throats of his customers and then, with the help of bake-shop owner Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter), grinds up the corpses and serves them as meat pies to a salivating if unsuspecting public. You want social commentary, listen to Sweeney’s logic: “It’s man devouring man, my dear/and who are we to deny it in here?” Depp doesn’t just say this line, he sings it. Yup, if you haven’t caught on by now, Sweeney Todd, set in nineteenth-century London, is a musical. Flying on the wings of Sondheim’s most thunderously exciting score, the movie is ninety percent sung. No less a music critic than Anthony Tommassini in The New York Times praised the actor’s attack on the role: “In Mr. Depp’s portrayal, words come first in the shaping of a phrase. Expression, nuance, intention and controlled intensity matter more than vocal richness and sustaining power.” Amen to that brother. The unique and surprising recording sessions are featured on Disc One, and supplemented on Disc Two by an interview with Sondheim himself. I’d place Depp along with James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line as the best performances ever by non-singers in a musical.
If there’s an unsung hero in this enterprise, it’s Tim Burton, who deserved the Oscar nomination for Best Director that went to Jason Reitman for Juno. Burton is a true visionary, and with the help of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, costume whiz Colleen Atwood and production designer Dante Ferretti he has created a musical worthy of mad respect and repeated viewings. The prudes still whine about the R-rated violence. But Burton’s use of blood is impressionistic, not realistic. When did we become a nation of wimps? It’s significant that Sweeney’s foreign grosses doubled it’s mild U.S. take of $50 million. Brit actor Alan Rickman, indelibly creepy as the film’s Judge Turpin, asked me what there was about America that made women hate blood and men despise musicals. Maybe you know. But I can attest that the brilliantly conceived and executed Sweeney Todd marks the sixth and arguably most exciting collaboration yet between Burton and Depp. I’d also argue for the two Eds — Wood and Scissorhands. But I’d like to hear your vote for the best of the half dozen Burton-Depp pairings:
Edward Scissorhands 1990
Ed Wood 1994
Sleepy Hollow 1999
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 2003
Corpse Bride 2005
Sweeney Todd 2007