CD Review by Gregory S. Burkart
Only Tim Burton could convince a major Hollywood studio to release a mega-budget R-rated Gothic horror musical on Christmas. In fact, he almost didn't succeed in doing that very thing. But ultimately his enthusiasm won out, and the world is better for it. Well okay, at least seriously deranged moviegoers like myself are pretty damned happy. Come on, work with me here!
You can read our 'Sweeney Todd' movie review here on FEARnet, so I won't retread that ground, but suffice to say I can't think of a better filmmaker to tackle the nearly impossible feat of adapting Steven Sondheim's most famous (and infamous) musical for the big screen ? and that includes wrestling with undoubtedly the most complex and unmistakable compositional style in modern music theater... a task which all involved pull off with skill, bravado and a touch of demented genius.
But before we get to the songs, I have to say that the orchestration here (based on the original by Jonthan Tunick) also deserves kudos. If this were purely an instrumental score, it would still be one of the best of the year, generating suspense and supporting the onscreen frights with haunting strings, muscular rhythms and some shocking bursts of tonal violence. Some of the longer expository pieces from the stage version have been edited down and rearranged slightly for the film, but their power is not diminished. You can feel the epic weight of the large orchestra in the ?Opening Title? overture (which borrows some portions from ?The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,? a song that does not actually appear as such in the film), which rises and falls through a blast of chilling cathedral organ, creeping toward a terrifying crescendo. On the downside, the closing credits music is absent from this CD, which is a great loss.
But what about those songs? The most hotly contested element among Sondheim fans (at least prior to the movie's release) was Burton's choice of go-to guy Johnny Depp, who has little musical experience, to deliver the twisting, interlocking and often violently colliding patterns that are Sondheim's trademark. However, it is the lyricist himself who has professed a preference for actors who can sing, as opposed to singers who can act... and this makes particular sense on film, where the cast no longer has to project to the cheap seats, but can achieve an intimacy that often proves daunting to musical theater performers when confronted with cameras & boom mikes in their faces.
This is most evident when listening to the letter-perfect voice of Jamie Campbell Bower, which does suit the youthful enthusiasm and moral courage of na?ve young sailor Anthony, but sounds a bit excessively brassy on occasion ? contrasting with Depp, who conveys more nuance of emotion despite a less polished baritone. Also the product of a professional music background is the impossibly pristine, crystalline voice of Jayne Wisener, which does fit her character well in the context of ?Green Finch and Linnet Bird,? in which the young Johanna ponders how her captive pets could sing so sweetly. Young Ed Sanders (as Toby) is also a pro, but also has a natural, likable delivery which calls to mind Mark Lester's star turn in Oliver, only less stagey; his fine solo ?Not While I'm Around? is sincere and touching.
Without the same level of training, Depp's singing voice is appealing and holds up well with the others. More importantly, it is seamlessly integrated into his performance as Todd. Depp's strength as an actor has always been his ability to find human pain and longing in outlandish, even cartoonish characters (especially when Burton is at the helm), and he brings this talent to his musical performance here, which sometimes lacks theatrical ?bigness? but has just the right note of barely-contained psychosis... check out ?My Friends,? in which Todd sings a love song to his murder weapons-to-be, for the most powerful example. Even without the images from the film, you can hear the rage seething beneath his words from the very first song, ?No Place Like London.? To say this title is a bit ironic is like saying that setting your hair on fire makes your scalp tingle, and Depp captures the mood perfectly.
His costars are quite adept as well: Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett is twitching with neurosis, and seems to be singing less to Mr. Todd than with the voices in her head. Her delivery is by turns hilarious (?A Little Priest?), creepy (?Poor Thing?) and heartbreaking (?Wait?), and although her vocals lack the power of Angela Lansbury, who defined the role on Broadway, there is an eccentricity to her method that really sells the character as a true Gothic anti-heroine (as she and Burton clearly intended).
Alan Rickman's smoky voice oozes sleaze as the soulless Judge Turpin, who destroys human lives such as Todd's without a second thought, but feels suddenly compelled to beautify himself in the barber chair prior to seducing his underage ward. It makes the duet ?Pretty Women? with Depp especially discomfiting, with Todd breathlessly anticipating murder while the Judge is lost in a lustful reverie. Another memorable performance comes from Sacha Baron Cohen as Signore Pirelli, whose pompous affectation of a courtly Italian accent is full of cheesy potential, which Cohen plays for all it's worth in ?The Contest.?
The ?Deluxe Complete Edition? of the film's soundtrack, courtesy of Nonesuch records, is packaged much like any top-drawer operatic production: the single CD containing 20 songs (totaling just over an hour) is packaged in a slipcase accompanied by a lavish 80-page full-color libretto, featuring all the song lyrics and a variety of color stills from the film. It's a classy presentation becoming any big-budget musical... but the term ?Complete? in the title is misleading, as some of the score cues from the film are missing. Despite this oversight, the superb recording quality makes listening to the CD feel like experiencing the film again. It's a must-have for Sondheim aficionados and horror music fans alike ? which is something you aren't going to hear everyday, to be sure.