Grease is the perfect musical. It has a simple story, generally a love story, that can be easily punctuated by catchy, musical set-pieces that range from huge, perfectly choreographed numbers to something much more solitary and intimate. It is full of songs that stand-alone and have in fact had chart success long after the film’s release. You ask anyone to name five songs from Grease and most people will do it without a second thought.
Loads of musicals have this formula too. I’m not a huge musical’s fan. I have only seen a handful but those that I have enjoyed have had the same recipe for success that Grease has. For me, the story and even the acting performances are second, everytime, to the songs. If you are going to tell a story that will be constantly interrupted by musical numbers then those songs better be good, catchy and distinctive.
I think this is where Sweeney Todd gets it wrong. The songs aren’t performed badly, most of the cast can sing very ably and Johnny Depp holds a note better than most others in the film, but they aren’t distinctive. In some cases, I wasn’t sure where one song began and another ended. In fact, some songs seemed so similar that it felt like there had only been about five different songs in the whole film. In fact the musical numbers was where I found my attention drifting. They lasted for too long, didn’t really have any catchy moments or anything to keep you focused and almost felt “bolted-on” to the film.
This means the film, as a musical, doesn’t work. If you took the musical aspect out though, the film would actually be improved. Johnny Depp gives an effortless and perfect performance as the revenge focused Sweeney Todd. Helena Bonham Carter also gives her usual, reliably good performance. It doesn’t end there though, Alan Rickman is the perfect choice for the villain and Sacha Baron Cohen shows that he can do menacing, comedy and can also sing (in an italian accent!)
Although Tim Burton’s films are beginning to have the exact same stylistic look, regardless of the story or actors (much of which are the same as well) this actually serves Sweeney Todd really well. It is a dark, grim and nasty story. The first meeting between Todd and Mrs. Lovett in her pie shop is disgusting and funny and is then seemingly ruined by a nothingy song. The story is well-known and timeless and the fact that it has been adapted to fit the musical genre damages it. It means that key parts of the story, like the relationship between Anthony and Johanna, seem bolted on, when they are actually key to the tale. I know this film is an adaption of the original stage musical but I think this shows that not all musicals can be adapted for film. This film would have been better as a straight retelling of the original tale and would have been ten times better for it.
Overall, I am a fan of a good musical film. I won’t go looking for them but when I do watch one, I want the songs to be catchy, memorable and tie the story together. In Sweeney Todd, the songs were forgettable, samey and nothing close to catchy. Keeping this as a musical made the film worse, which is a shame because it has great performances, a fantastic story and a lot more going for it, if you can focus through the unnecessary singing!
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)