Sunday, January 20, 2008

Deliciously Dark

Movie: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Directed by: Tim Burton

Part One: Staying Power

I have to admit I’m not a great fan of musicals. Generally speaking they don’t - as an artistic experience - provide me with me the emotional satisfaction of more ‘serious’ musical forms. Though I can easily suspend disbelief and marvel at actors suddenly breaking into song without warning, the characters in musicals rarely rise above the level of caricature, and the story line of the classic musical displays an overarching romanticism which nowadays seems hokey.

Having said that, there’s no denying the genre’s great entertainment value and staying power. It's been going strong since the late 1920s, when Busby Berkeley used ideas from the drills he had practiced as a soldier during the First World War to transform traditional dance numbers.

Following that, astonishing talents such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly dominated entertainment during the musical's 'golden era'. Movies such as The Wizard of Oz, (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and On the Town (1949) provided much needed escapist entertainment during the depression, war and post-war periods. The dazzling ballet sequences in An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) expanded the vocabulary of modern dance.

But then came rock ‘n’ roll, and following the 1950s, the musical film declined in popularity. The freedom and youth associated with rock ‘n’ roll made the values expressed in the musical seem stuffy and antiquated.

But this is to deny the social consciousness of writers like Oscar Hammerstein. His Carousel (1956) mocks the hypocrisy of social class, while South Pacific (1958) attacks racial prejudice. Indeed, the dominant theme of the musical in the last four decades has been one of tolerance and social awareness, as in West Side Story (1961).

New life was breathed into the genre by modernizers like Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Stephen Sondheim. Kirkwood & Dante's A Chorus Line had its roots in group therapy, and issues such as religious and class struggles, national identity, political biography, bohemianism and gay rights were directly addressed in Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Cabaret, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Rent. The revival of the musical has continued into the present century with movies like Moulin Rouge, Chicago and now Sweeney Todd.

Part Two: Nightmare on Fleet Street

Last night I witnessed Hollywood’s latest musical offering, Tim Burton’s adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Like me, star Johnny Depp isn't keen on musicals, but as he has remarked, how many chances do you get to see a movie about a serial killer who supplies his neighbor with the ghoulish ingredients of her meat pies?

Depp in fact adopts a wonderfully punky approach as the mad barber Sweeney and is a passable singer. That's just as well since there’s precious little dialogue in Sweeney Todd - it’s actually an operetta rather than a musical.

I must say that the movie rather dragged for me in its early stages. I found few of the songs memorable and my interest was maintained mainly by the director’s customarily stunning visual style. However Sweeney Todd suddenly bursts into life during a splendidly gruesome third act in which each character receives their bloody comeuppance.

For me the best thing about this deliciously dark film was Helena Bonham Carter, who steals every scene as Sweeney’s sidekick Mrs. Lovett. In fact Bonham-Carter seems to have a knack for doing this in just about every movie she appears in. I only realized last night she’s one of my favorite movie stars and I 'd love to see her pick up an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Watching the movie here in Kyoto, it was interesting to observe the stoic reactions of a mainly Japanese audience. There’s lashings of black humor throughout Sweeney Todd, but it doesn't seem to play well in Japan.

During the hilarious scene where Sweeney impassively dispatches a succession of customers with his cutthroat razor, my companion and I were the only audience members erupting into gales of laughter.

As the closing credits were rolling, we had already left the theater. Tears of mirth in our eyes, we ran as fast we could to our favorite British bar for a pint of ale and a deliciously filling meat pie.

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