Friday, May 09, 2008

Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd" [SPOILERS!]

Everyone I know loved Tim Burton's adaptation of "Sweeney Tood." I'm the exception. But, like all my friends, I found it visually stunning: meaning that each shot looked like a arresting painting or photograph. On top of that, I've always loved Sondheim's music and lyrics. And the story moves me. So, a great story, fantastic music, stunning visuals... what's not to love?

Redundancy. Rather than finding a way to make the visuals add a new element to the music, Burton uses them to illustrate the music. One example: in the song "By the Sea," Mrs. Lovett sings,

In our cozy retreat kept all neat and tidy,
We'll have chums over ev'ry Friday

Burton decides to show us what's in Lovett's mind's eye. He cuts to a fantasy image of Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett entertaining some friends. But that's unnecessary. The image is already in the lyrics. Burton doesn't need to illustrate it. (I'm surprised he doesn't place a calendar in the shot, showing that it is -- indeed -- Friday.)

Okay, maybe he doesn't need to illustrate the lyrics, but what's wrong with doing so? Ultimately, I can't defend my view, other than to say my aesthetics don't allow gratuity or redundancy. But I think most people would cringe at prose that said, "One upon a time there was a little girl named Margaret. She was little. Also, she was female. When she was born, her parents named her Margaret." Perhaps to those who aren't cursed with my redundancy-radar, such lapses are less noticeable when a visual duplicates a lyric.

If you give people enough treats, they tend to ignore (or not notice) that the treats could be better. So if you're sufficiently dazzled by picture, story and music (and acting, etc.), you may not be bothered by redundancy, even if you admit that, on some level, it's a fault. The movie is good enough to entertain you.

Yes, but it could be better.

Music is wonderful because each instrument adds something unique. They don't just ape each other. And all the unique sounds work together to make a whole greater than the sum of its parts. We especially feel this when music has lyrics. For instance, "Eleanor Rigby"'s sad music doesn't illustrate its sad lyrics. The lyrics are sad in one way; the music in another way. Both of these ways work together to create something deeply moving.

Now, I like The Beach Boys. But I think they're much stronger musically than lyrically. I don't think their lyrics are redundant; I just think they're weak. "Good Vibrations" is a stunning piece of melody, harmony and timing. But the boys could have done better than, "Im pickin' up good vibrations. / She's giving me excitations." To be honest, I'm so dazzled by the tune, I don't generally notice the lyrics. I simply enjoy the song. In this sense, I'm like my friends who are so dazzled by Burton's eye candy and Sondheim's music, they don't notice the flaws in "Sweeney Todd."

But that doesn't mean it couldn't be better. I'd be even more thrilled by "Good Vibrations" if its lyrics matched the brilliance of its music. So even if "Sweeney Todd"'s flaws don't disturb you, I hope you'll see that it is flawed -- and that those flaws could have been (and should have been) dealt with. And the movie would have been better without them. I don't think it's good. You may think it's good enough. But dammit, it should have been great!

I'd like to focus on Burton's handling of the song "A Little Priest." In the song, Todd and Lovett try to outdo each other with gruesome puns about pies made out of people:

TODD: What is that?

LOVETT: It's priest. Have a little priest.

TODD: Is it really good?

LOVETT: Sir, it's too good, at least!
Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh,
So it's pretty fresh.

TODD: Awful lot of fat.

LOVETT: Only where it sat.

TODD: Haven't you got poet, or something like that?

LOVETT: No, y'see, the trouble with poet is
'Ow do you know it's deceased?
Try the priest!

TODD: (spoken) Heavenly!
Not as hearty as bishop, perhaps,
but then again, not as bland as curate, either!

Burton films this by placing the characters in a room surrounded by windows. Before each person-in-pie pun, one of the Todd or Lovett happens to look out a window and see the sort of person he or she is singing about. So, for instance, Mrs. Lovett looks out the window, sees a priest, gets the idea, and sings, "It's priest..."

Aside from being redundant, this destroys the fun. The fun -- besides the fun of gallows-humor -- is hearing two smart people, Todd and Lovett, on a spree of pure invention. It's like you're watching what you think is an actor doing brilliant improv, then all of the sudden you see he's reading cue cards. It was much more fun when you thought he was making it up. In Burton's version, Lovett isn't smart enough to think up "priest" on her own. She has to see one.

Given Burton's interpretation, I'm not sure what to make of lines like this:

LOVETT: (spoken) Now let's see, here... We've got tinker.
TODD: Something... pinker.
LOVETT: Tailor?
TODD: Paler.
LOVETT: Butler?
TODD: Subtler.
LOVETT: Potter?
TODD: Hotter.
LOVETT: Locksmith?

Isn't the whole point that they're brilliantly trying to stump each other? It's not brilliant if they can see a parade of London professionals walking by at opportune moments, giving them hints. A clever scrabble match gets reduced to one in which each player gets to consult a dictionary before taking his turn.

But the worst sin is that by turning the song outward -- by focusing on what Todd and Lovett are looking at -- Burton misses how deeply this song illuminates character. We don't care about priests and tailors. We care about Todd and Lovett. This song is about two people who have been talking past each other coming together and forming a cohesive unit.

Before "A Little Priest," Lovett moons over Todd, but Todd barely registers her. He's too caught up in anger and lust for revenge to care about her. Sondheim paints this picture beautifully in the song "My Friends." The "friends" in the song don't refer to Todd and Lovett. Rather, Todd is singing a love song to his razors. Never once does he refer to Lovett, though she's is in the room with him, simultaneously singing a love song to him, which he doesn't notice:

Todd (to his razors): You there, my friend,

Lovett (to todd): I'm your friend too, Mr. Todd.

Todd: Come, let me hold you.

Lovett: If you only knew, Mr. Todd.

Todd: Now, with a sigh,

Lovett: Ooh, Mr. Todd,

Todd: You grow warm in my hand...

Lovett: You're warm in my hand...

Todd: My friend,

Lovett: You've come home.

Todd: My clever friend...

Lovett: Always had a fondness for you, I did...

And so it goes. In fact, even "A Little Priest" begins with the characters talking at cross purposes and misunderstanding each other. Shortly before the song, Todd kills his first victim. He and Lovett are trying to figure out how to dispose of the body. Todd suggests waiting until dark and then burying it. But Mrs. Lovett has a better idea. She explains it to Todd obliquely, hoping he'll get it. But he doesn't.

MRS. LOVETT: Seems a downright shame...

TODD: Shame?

LOVETT: Seems an awful waste...
Such a nice, plump frame
Wot's 'is name has...
Nor it can't be traced...
Bus'ness needs a lift,
Debts to be erased...
Think of it as thrift,
As a gift,
If you get my drift!


But then there's finally that golden moment when the lightbulb goes off in Todd's brain. Suddenly, he's in same time and place as Lovett.

LOVETT: Seems an awful waste...
I mean, with the price of meat
What it is,
When you get it,
If you get it...


LOVETT: Good, you got it!

And for the first time, he sings to her as if he's noticed her, as if he appreciates her:

Mrs. Lovett, what a charming notion
Eminently practical
And yet appropriate as always!
Mrs. Lovett, how I've lived
Without you all these years, I'll never know!

And this leads them into the partying and punning (the music, by the way, is a waltz). They hatch their great idea. Todd will murder people; Lovett will dispose of their bodies by making them into pies. The perfect crime, each member doing his or her part, each needing the other. It's appropriate that this song ends Act I (of the original stage version). The whole act has been about the two characters dancing around each other. Now they are dancing with each other. Act II will be about how their union falls apart. (And, at the end, right before Todd pushes Lovett into the oven, he reprises a bit of "A little Priest," this time sung mockingly. He re-interprets their former union as a sham.)

Even within "A Little Priest," Todd and Lovett have a complex relationship. True, they come together. But Todd's obsessions risk ripping them apart:

LOVETT: Try the friar,
Fried, it's drier!

TODD: No, the clergy is really
Too coarse and too mealy!

LOVETT: Then actor,
That's compacter!

TODD: Yes, and always arrives overdone!
I'll come again when you have JUDGE on the menu!

Todd's last line kills the game. Musically and lyrically, it doesn't rhyme. It's "out of tune" with the rest of the song. [UPDATE: in a comment to this post, James Troutman pointed out that the line contains an internal rhyme ("you" and "menu"). He went on to say, "Musically it provides a modulation from E flat to D flat and the song stays in that key until the end. To me it conveys a sense of moving towards the conclusion, as opposed to moving in a totally new direction."] Luckily, Mrs. Lovett distracts him, getting him back on track. And by the end, they're a couple again:

TODD: Have charity towards the world, my pet!

LOVETT: Yes, yes, I know, my love!

TODD: We'll take the customers that we can get!

LOVETT: High-born and low, my love!

TODD: We'll not discriminate great from small!
No, we'll serve anyone,
Meaning anyone,

BOTH: And to anyone
At all!

Like many Sondheim fans, I own the original-cast recording. I've listened to this song dozens of times. The puns were fun at first, and they're still fun, but the don't surprise me any more. What brings me back to the song, again and again, is the delicate balance of Lovett and Todd's relationship. The feeling of euphoria when they come together; the heart-skipping-a-beat feeling when they almost come apart. (And the foreshadowing that they eventually will -- that Todd's obsessions will destroy any chance of harmony between them.)

Consciously or unconsciously, Burton works against this. He's so intent on illustrating, he misses the forest for the trees. It's as if, reading Sondheim's lyrics, he rubbed his hands together, grinning at all the wonderful images they called up, looking forward to displaying them on a big screen. Though Burton will laugh at me all the way to the bank, I'd go as far as to say that he doesn't just misunderstand Sondheim, he misunderstands cinema. He thinks of it as a means to show off cool images. He doesn't think of it as a unique vehicle for story-telling, one that offers the craftsman an orchestra of instruments, each of which should be playing its own tune (though adding to the whole) or not playing at all. There's no room for fat. Fat should be trimmed. "You must kill all your darlings."

How would I have filmed the scene? Well, I wouldn't have shown a single priest, tinker or chimney sweep. If the room must have windows, the curtains would be drawn. Todd and Lovett would have been in Lovett's pie shop. They would have been discussing the body while Lovett got on with her business. She would have been making pies. Todd would have been seated in a chair, perhaps. Maybe staring into space; maybe cleaning one of his blades.

Once Todd gets Lovett's idea, and they go into the punning section, they would use Lovett's pies as joke props. Pretending they are people pies. Eventually, when the punning got fast enough, they would have dispensed with the props altogether. Words would have been enough, their eyes meeting, maybe for the first time. One thing Burton and I agree on: at they height of their unity, they would waltz around the room.

But that's not cinematic! Burton's version is a movie version, not a stage version. You can't just have people in a room, talking (or singing).

Hogwash. Most movies have dialogue scenes. Think of the most "visual" filmmakers. Scorsese, Coppola, Kubrick. In "The Shining," the most dramatic scenes involve Shelley Duval and Jack Nicholson talking. Famously, HAL 9000 and Dave talk in "2001." There's plenty of talking in "Taxi Driver" and also plenty in "The Godfather." Not every scene needs to be about "great visuals." A wise artist knows when to pull the camera back and when to push it in. He knows when a scene is about vista; he knows when it's about character.

And if there is no way to make a story "cinematic" (which I don't think is true in this case), the wise artists remembers that not every story needs to be filmed in the first place. Just because it exists, it doesn't have to be a movie.


My idea of a well-filmed musical number is "My Forgotten Man" from "Gold Diggers of 1933." It's the most brilliant (and yet understated) number ever filmed, and Burton should have studied it as gospel. All you would-be Burtons can see it here:

The scene starts with a dumbshow, underscored by a musical prelude. It's the Depression. A sad Joan Blondell bumbs a cigarette off a guy in the street. He seems down-and-out, too. They lock eyes for a moment and then he moves on. None of this illustrates the upcoming lyrics in a literal way. There's no mention in the song of cigarettes or meetings in the street. But it compliments and deepens the song's story.

Next, we get a prolonged closeup of Blondell singing (or rather speaking) the song. Some directors might prefer something more "cinematic," yet what could be more so than a closeup? What other medium allows it? You can't create closeups on the stage. They're relatively weak on television. (I'm sorry you have to watch this one on YouTube.) This closeup forces you to confront Blondell's pain. Her eyes complement the lyrics more eloquently than any other image I can imagine.

Then, in its most brilliant section, the camera moves away from Blondell to a tenement window, in which you see another woman. She too starts singing the song:

Remember my Forgotten Man.
You put a rifle in his hand.
You sent him far away.
You shouted hip hooray.
But look at him today.

The lyrics tell the story of a forgotten man. Yet the camera lingers on a woman. It then moves from window to window. In each window, there's a woman by herself -- in one case, a woman with a baby. These are the "forgotten women" who aren't mentioned in the song, except by the words "my" and "me."

It would have been so easy to show rifles and people shouting hooray. But the director (the great Busby Berkely) went in another direction. Realizing that such shots would be redundant, he opened the song up in an unexpected way. He let the music do its job, the lyrics do theirs, and the images make their own, unique contributions.