You Are What You Eat
Musicals and cannibalism. You wouldn’t have imaged it but nothing seems to go together better – like barbeque chips and white cheddar popcorn or garlic bread and vanilla ice cream. Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it. Segue: just like movies such as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street or the lesser-known Cannibal! The Musical – a medium that seems only for the happiest of stories can be just as easily applied to the twisted and macabre. Let’s start out with the more familiar title.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Brief history: After years of penny dreadfuls and silent film adaptations, Sweeney Todd as a musical was written by Broadway great Stephen Sondheim back in 1979 and originally starred Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou in the title role. It has since been adapted on and off Broadway numerous times until finally becoming a feature film in 2007.
This popular tale surrounds a humble barber named Benjamin Barker. Barker ran a successful business atop Mrs. Lovett’s meat pie shop for years until the insidious Judge Turpin arrested him and had him locked away for 15 years, simply so he could get at Barker’s wife, Lucy. Now Barker has returned under the name Sweeney Todd and seeks revenge for the man who wrecked his life – a rage which has only exacerbated now that he learns from Mrs. Lovett that not only did the judge rape his wife but in her misery poisoned herself, and now Turpin is the sole guardian of Todd’s daughter, Johanna. His plot of revenge soon turns to obsession as he begins to pick off innocent men who pop into his shop – it’s a good thing there’s Mrs. Lovett downstairs, or else all those bodies would be hard to hide.
Now I was/am one of those weird kids who was raised on musicals, so I was fairly familiar with the story and proceeded to fangasm all over the place once I learned that it was not only going to be adapted by Tim Burton, but it was also going to star Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter as the leads (no surprise), and the icing on the cake, Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin. I was mostly stoked to see what these people sounded like, being that none of these people had ever sung in a production before.
As a result, the final product isn’t that bad at all. In fact, it’s really quite remarkable on some levels – enough for Depp to be nominated for an Oscar that year. Though there are some changes between the original story and this movie (some fairly substantial in terms of character development), I don’t believe it’s fair to play Pong with comparisons. I realize that many people found this movie more annoyingly angst-ridden than expected (or weren’t expecting an actual musical…I do not compute), but I honestly believe that the visual elements (well, it did win the Oscar for set design) as well as the performances are fantastic and well-worth noting.
Burton has mentioned many times that he wanted Sweeney Todd to be a tribute to classic horror, and it is played out as such: the lighting/scenery, the makeup and costume design, down to the very gestures of the characters. Ironically enough, he thought by using “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” would be far too theatrical for this production – like I said, I don’t want to do comparisons but I just thought that was odd – I digress. The set design almost mimics the stage of a one-act play: a little chaotic at times but still sets the mood perfectly.
I know many die-hard Sondheim fans were disappointed in Bonham Carter’s performance as Lovett, however, she did not get the part simply because she’s sleeping with the director – she actually auditioned in front of Sondheim himself. Though her singing voice may be a little too soft at times, I appreciated her performance none the less: Lovett had always been the mastermind behind Sweeney’s madness and I feel that Bonham Carter portrayed this character in a way that allowed her to be wicked and conniving but still had a lingering desperation and sadness in her performance.
Now Johnny Depp on the other hand, I really just wanted to see more. This version of Sweeney was more somber and brooding. He expressed himself through his actions and would only on occasion raise his voice. Don’t get me wrong, I really dig his performance, and the fact that he sounds like an angsty David Bowie when he sings, but I just feel that this sort of reserved performance in combination with such a theatrical setting almost spoke to the wrong audience. You can take so many liberties with this character and I feel that he missed out on some great opportunities, but whatever – he’s still a joy to watch each time.
And as much as Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman’s duet makes me swoon, the performance that really knocked my socks off was Sasha Baron Cohen as Signor Pirelli:
Who knew that the man known as Borat could sing so well? This man needs to be in more random dramatic bit parts.
Overall, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a pretty cool flick slasher-flick. I’m not sure if I could call it “underrated,” but I do think it’s worth checking out – so what it’s a musical? Big deal! It’s a sad story that’s artfully told, with plenty of tongue-and-cheek humor (not to mention cheeky puns) to boot. Moving on…
Cannibal! The Musical
Cannibal! is a start contrast from Sweeney Todd to say the least. Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame, Cannibal! is a dark comedy loosely based off of the true story of Alfred Packer, a man convicted for manslaughter and accused of cannibalism in 1873.
This movie. I think I enjoyed it far more than I should have. What makes it so great is that it totally mocks Oklahoma! as well as every other Rogers and Hammerstein film ever made – and they do it well. Just take a look at this clip of the first song:
Not only does it parody a very popular Broadway staple, but it’s also just as catchy and has a made-up word. Okay, that’s a dumb reason for claiming something’s better than something else, but it made me laugh – and the whole movie’s just as absurd as it is incredibly entertaining.
As I mentioned, this film does an impeccable job at mocking your standard Rogers and Hammerstein musical, and I feel this is most evident with the characters. Told retrospectively by Packer after his arrest, the tale follows a group of miners on their way to Colorado Territory. Each of them as happy and optimistic as can be (except for the brooding butcher, of course) with dreams of what they plan to spend all of their gold on. If you couldn’t guess, they begin to lose hope as their leader, Packer, gets them hopelessly lost and they begrudgingly turn to cannibalism as their only hope of survival.
I don’t want to corner Parker and Stone and say you won’t like this if you don’t like South Park, because I honestly don’t think that’s the case. This movie is legitimately funny with humor ranging from the silly and absurd to actually really dark and twisted (which I also appreciated). And though I have less to say about Cannibal! than Sweeney Todd, well it’s not only apples and oranges, but this movie is really so much simpler (and there wasn’t an actual theatrical release or anything). It’s fairly well-written and these guys look like they just had a great time filming it. Do yourselves a favor and find this movie on Netflix or something and check it out.
Wowee that was a long Don’t Quit Your Day Job. Next time I think I’ll touch on a famous little cult film (which briefly touches on cannibalism oddly enough) and extend my horizons and focus on what makes cult films so cultastic. I’m stoked, guys.