Monday, February 18, 2008

Grindhouse II: Sweeney Todd

I've had a fondness for the musical version of the Sweeney Todd story ever since I borrowed a copy of the soundtrack album from the Walla Walla Public Library. That was in the early '80's, so I can imagine the tortuous route the property traveled from Broadway to the silver screen, twenty-six year later.

We spent this Presidents' Day afternoon watching Tim Burton's film version of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET in the only venue anywhere near us where it was playing: the Academy Six theater in Pasadena, where matinees are $2 and evenings are $3. That it should be exiled to this low-revenue gulag less than two months after premiering (and despite being nominated for multiple Oscars) speaks volumes about today's movie theater business, which grinds up movies just like Mrs. Lovettt ground up pie filling.

Part of the delay in the movie reaching the screen is the changing market for movie musicals. I recall reading that when a movie version of THE FANTASTICKS (which took even longer to be made into a movie) played a few years ago, the audience chatted during the musical numbers -- because they didn't realize that the numbers were part of the story. Hence, the hallmark of sixties and seventies movie musicals -- gigantic song and dance numbers that filled the every corner of the screen -- is gone. The last successful movie musical, CHICAGO, staged the musical numbers separately from the narrative. And Burton's SWEENEY TODD not only avoids big set pieces, but even slices from the score the ensemble numbers, such as the marvelous overture. (Perhaps the thinking was that we didn't need a chorus singing, "His face was pale/his eye was odd/and he shaved the faces of gentlemen/who never thereafter were seen again" when we can see all that in the movie.) And in the number "God, that's good," Burton showed the restaurant full of customers, but cut out their chorus -- the one that gives the number its name!

But I quite liked this artsy telling of the story, carried much of the way by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as the murderous pair at the center of the story. I enjoyed the selective use of color, though many may find it manipulative and artificial. And the almost victoria-punk wardrobe and makeup made the movie visually arresting. It was a delightful dive into darkness for an afternoon off.

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