Judge on the Menu…

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After so many disappointments of late, I am thrilled to say that something I have been looking forward to for years seems to be finally coming to glorious fruition.

It seems that, despite all the complexities and obstacles, the film version of Sweeney Todd that I have mentioned previously is going to be glorious. I am even happier to say, it appears that it will be a wonderful film not only for those who may know the musical, or follow the creators involved, but for anyone who enjoys the styles and images of Victorian London.

I am pleased to announce that I can finally not only show you an in-depth article concerning the film…but God save us all, TRAILERS!!!


Read the following article from the much reviled Entertainment Weekly (ignore the marketing spin as much as you can) and watch the trailers HERE, and then you tell me….excited yet?

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What sort of gift would you bring Johnny Depp, if he were to invite you to his home in the south of France? Six years ago, his director pal Tim Burton turned up with an original cast recording of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. ”I thought, That’s weird,” says Depp. ”I wonder why he gave me that.” Broadway zealots have long been obsessed with the show, which won a Tony for Best Musical in 1979. But like most of the general public, Depp is not a Broadway zealot. He never got around to discussing the music with Burton. Still, he came to admire the sweet-and-sour mix of harmony and dissonance in Stephen Sondheim’s intricate songs. ”I wouldn’t say it’s something I would listen to every day, necessarily,” he admits. ”It’s quite large and operatic. I’ve never been a big-musical sort of guy.”

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Neither has Burton, actually. The director can’t stand most burst-into-song movie-musical conventions. But he has always loved the heightened, melodramatic mien of Sweeney, in which a kindly man becomes a crazed serial killer. And he’s managed to enlist Depp in creating a remarkably faithful film adaptation in which most of the action unfolds in song, pulling it off with something close to carte blanche from key DreamWorks and Warner execs.

It’s mid-October, and Burton is holed up in a postproduction facility in Manhattan, where he has until mid-November to deliver a final copy of the movie. He says this is the first time he hasn’t had to submit a film to the test-screening process (although there have been screenings for marketing purposes). ”The studio people realize that the movie is what it is,” he says. Besides, it’s made up of interlocking musical sequences. ”It’s not like there’s other stuff to cut into it to replace anything.”

An early look at a version with only a rough sound mix confirms some expectations — the film is dark, desaturated, and visually stunning — and yields some revelations: First, Johnny Depp can actually sing, and second,the movie’s got more spurting blood than a season’s worth of E.R. Like the show, Sweeney Todd spins a gruesome tale of vengeance in 19th-century London. Unlike other, more whimsical characters in the Depp-Burton canon, including sad sack Edward Scissorhands and nutty candyman Willy Wonka, this guy is hard as a cobblestone: a heedless, psychopathic murderer. Depp’s Todd starts slitting the throats of innocent customers as an expression of rage after a corrupt judge (Alan Rickman) steals away his wife and daughter. (He also squares off against a nasty rival barber, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Borat.) ”That was always the difficulty,” Depp says, ”taking a character like that and attempting to make people feel for him, at the same time that he’s slashing people up. Not easy.”

But easier, perhaps, than Helena Bonham Carter’s job in playing Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s ghoulish partner in crime. Desperate to be part of Todd’s life and to exorcise his wife’s ghost, she becomes his business associate, grinding victims into meat pies and selling them to an unsuspecting public. ”It’s so sick,” she says of the subplot, wondering about the reaction. ”I hope we get away with it.”

Though it ultimately got made in a hurry, Sweeney Todd languished in development for decades. Alan Parker (Evita) was said to be interested in the ’80s. Burton himself took a stab at it in the early ’90s, but he says it came to nothing because there wasn’t a script in place. Sam Mendes worked on a version for several years with Gladiator scribe John Logan before making 2005’s Jarhead instead. Then, in the summer of 2006, Burton suddenly had an opening in his schedule after his Jim Carrey movie, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, fell apart. He pounced on Sweeney, and quickly persuaded Depp to join him. The budget commitment wasn’t huge — around $50 million — and the shooting schedule sounded hectic at just 60 days. However, as Depp puts it, ”How many chances do you get at a musical about a serial killer?”

And how many chances does a non-singer get at tackling such an insanely difficult score? Did Depp realize what he was getting into? Sondheim, who had casting approval, okayed the actor without hearing him perform any material. ”I figured he’d have a light baritone,” says the composer, now 77. ”You can hear it in his speaking voice. I love him as an actor, and always have. Put those things together, I didn’t hesitate for one second.” Depp was floored at passing muster so easily. ”It was a real shock,” he says. ”He said to me early on that the singing was secondary to hitting the notes emotionally.” Depp takes a beat. ”I didn’t believe him.” He laughs. ”I think he was probably just saying that to make me feel better about what I was about to attempt.”

Depp did have the advantage of a musical background. The actor first came to L.A. in the early ’80s as the lead guitarist in a pompadoured punk-pop quartet called the Kids. The group lasted only a few years, and Depp has noodled around on guitar and bass in a number of other bands since. But he’s sung only cursory backup bits. When the actor starred in John Waters’ 1990 movie musical Cry-Baby, another guy dubbed his rockabilly songs. ”I knew I could stay in key to some degree,” he says. ”But I didn’t know if I could sustain a note, or belt one out.”

Last fall, when it came time to start working on his vocals, Depp was still in Captain Jack attire, filming the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie. That’s when he did something unexpected, nonconformist, and potentially calamitous: He decided to go it alone. ”I was talking to people and they were saying, Well, of course you’re going to get a singing teacher,” he says. ”And I said, ‘Oh, yeah-yeah! Of course I will. Yeah.’ ” Instead, Depp ran as far from formal instruction as he could. ”I just didn’t see the character developing with me doing scales in front of a piano and a vocal teacher going, ‘No, no — bring it up from the bollocks,’ ” he says. ”That kind of thing would have been a disaster. I would still be rehearsing right now. Or I’d have been fired.”

The Sweeney preproduction team was headquartered at Pinewood Studios, near London, where Burton now lives. But Depp chose to hole up at a West Hollywood recording studio. He felt he had to find the voice — and thereby the character — by making demo recordings on his own. The guy at the mixing board was an old friend named Bruce Witkin, who founded a small label called Unison Music. ”He’s a brother,” says Depp. The two were bandmates in the Kids and had lived together as teenagers in Florida, where Depp grew up.

Like buddies cramming for a test, Depp and Witkin found a groove. ”It was an enormous help and comfort,” says Depp. ”It meant everything in finding Sweeney.” The preproduction team, however, was getting antsy. Filming was set to start in February of 2007 and, as of late October in 2006, Depp hadn’t sent anyone a sample of his singing. Says producer Richard Zanuck: ”Nobody had heard Johnny’s voice. Millions of dollars, committed on an assumption. We all said to one another, ‘Johnny is a smart guy. He would never put himself in this position if he didn’t think he could do it. He must be able to sing.’ But nobody could prove that!” Finally, on Nov. 2, Burton received a CD with Depp performing ”My Friends,” a song Sweeney croons to his beloved razors. Burton was elated. ”He was really supportive,” Depp says. ”It was the reaction I was praying for.”

Just as Depp had unusual freedom to shape his vocals, Burton was given great latitude in dreaming up his extremely gruesome visuals; the studio consented to an R rating from the start, though it would limit the audience. The director saw the picture as an homage to old Universal horror flicks (Frankenstein, The Black Cat), creepy silent-film melodramas (any number of Lon Chaney spine-tinglers), and Hammer horror films (pulpy fare from the ’50s and ’60s). Both Burton and Depp say there are major nods to Peter Lorre’s Mad Love performance in Sweeney. Oh, and that shock of white in Depp’s hair? A sign of Todd’s trauma — and possibly a nod to Humphrey Bogart’s skunk stripe in his lone horror picture, The Return of Dr. X., a Burton favorite. (Plus Depp says he’s got a nephew with a white streak.)

Burton felt Sweeney should be deliberately grotesque — a Mario Bava gorefest with ballads. ”It just goes with the story,” he says of the geysers of plasma. ”I’d seen different Sweeney Todd productions on stage, and when they skimped on the blood, the production lost something. Everything is so internal with Sweeney that [the blood] is like his emotional release. It’s more about catharsis than it is a literal thing.” Audiences may or may not see it so intellectually when the viscera hit the camera lens.

Back in London, Burton’s partner of six years, Helena Bonham Carter, is seven months pregnant with their second child. (Their first, Billy Ray, is now 4.) She’s due to deliver in December, around the time the film opens, and sounds unsure about which labor will be more difficult: the movie, or the baby.

”It was one of the toughest, most grueling rites of passage we went through in our relationship,” says the actress, who appeared in small parts in Burton’s Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as well as in a key simian role in Planet of the Apes. ”I think I had to be righter than right to prove I was right to play Mrs. Lovett. But it had been in my blood. I wanted to be her when I was 13, when the show came out. I went around with a Mrs. Lovett hairdo.” Unlike Depp, Bonham Carter studied for months with a renowned vocal coach, Ian Adam. ”He was famous for making actors sing who couldn’t previously,” she says. Sadly, he died the week filming wrapped.

With the premiere of Sweeney Todd approaching, Bonham Carter knows she’s in for a barrage of innuendo about nepotism, having scored a lead role that show-tune fans on chat boards had envisioned for a more seasoned singer-actress like Meryl Streep. ”I’m sure people will think, Aah, it’s because I’ve slept with Tim,” she says. ”But I didn’t sleep with Sondheim. And he ultimately chose me.” The composer says he watched a dozen or so audition tapes and insists that Bonham Carter’s performance was the best. ”Even in a recording studio, wearing a schmatte, she is as beautiful and sexy as they come,” he says. ”She knew what she was doing, more than the others.” Sondheim is equally pleased with Depp. ”There are very few people who can act and sing at the same time,” he says. ”He’s one.”

Depp remains nervous about it all. In the spectrum of actors-turned-singers, he has no idea if he’ll be received the way Ewan McGregor was in Moulin Rouge! (huzzah!), or more like Burt Reynolds in At Long Last Love (boo!). He may be the poster boy for cool, but he’s sweating. ”I always freak out when any of my films are about to come out,” he says. ”I think it’s totally normal.” It probably doesn’t help that Sweeney Todd is an oddity, even within the anything-goes confines of Depp’s filmography. ”Somebody sent me this thing from online,” he says. ”Somebody said after they saw the trailer, ‘I don’t understand why, in the middle of that trailer, Depp broke into a song.’ Like, ‘Whoa! What is he doing?”’ Forging his own path, as always. This time with a razor.

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Now playing: Rufus Wainwright – Another Believer
via FoxyTunes

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2 Comments

  1. Lovely article. *Better* trailers. Yay for Sweeney!

    I’m already starting to tell people that this year, if they choose, they can just give me a ticket to the opening weekend, some time. I’ll be happy to go multiple times. :)

  2. “But I didn’t sleep with Sondheim.” Nor did Depp, apparently!

    Thanks for the article and the link to the trailers. This does look to be a spectacular success. And Sasha Baron Cohen as the huckster with the ludicrous accent? Genius!


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