Neck and neck
A UK region 2 DVD review of SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET by Camus
 
"They should have run screaming for the hills with this one.
An R-rated bloody musical starring someone they don't even
know if he can sing. I mean, Jesus. There's a certain amount
of trust that goes into backing that. It's exciting when
people do that, you know?"
Director, Tim Burton


Let's take the sting out of that admiring incredulity. Burton (no commercial minnow himself) is talking about studios putting faith in Johnny Depp (duh), not Joe Schmoe. But in retrospect, Burton and company did an extraordinary job on material that does not, at first glance, knock on the blockbuster door. The movie covered its production costs in the US and doubled that figure overseas so it is with an exhalation of "Phew!" that I announce its theatrical success. This is good news for two important reasons. It means that studios may lean towards riskier projects in future (you think?) and secondly, let's have more Sondheim on screen. From someone like Burton (who, according to his nearest and dearest "hates musicals!") to take on Into The Woods would be a wonderful treat for the world. Sweeney Todd is a terrific achievement. It's perhaps notable that together with Depp, Burton has made the most colourful film with music (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and the least colourful musical. Sweeney is dark in all the best senses. For the cinema review, click here. The DVD has all sorts of extra goodies and a transfer to sate any appetite of discernment.

sound and vision

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic, the DVD looks edible like bitter chocolate, so darkly gorgeous in fact, that I hunted around the outside of the subject for detail to just breathe in. It is a fantasy London of course, stuck somewhere in the squalid 1800s, but made real by digital artistry and good old fashioned set design. In fact it's hyper-real, a superb backdrop to the, granted, over the top tale of throat slicing revenge. The whole movie is practically in black and white and was when shot. Burton was very specific about his colour palette. If there is one gripe, it's the theatrical 'pink' of the arterial spray. OK, this isn't Taxi Driver (whose blood soaked finale had to be graded darker to satisfy censors and thus became even more realistic) but a nod to the darker blood would have been good.

What makes this DVD presentation really shine is the Dolby Digital soundtrack. The sub woofer provides a subtle bass pad while sound effects of an industrial nature flit around the back speakers really immersing you in the action. But it is the music and the clarity of the voices that really tests your speakers. There is not one word uncaught. The precision of the singing is even more marked on a home surround set up. It's a superb transfer with a dynamic range that far outstrips a lot of DVDs that ought to know better.

The featured subtitles are in English, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Icelandic.

extra features

Disc 1

English Descriptive Narration
I had a ball with this one. It is the weirdest thing hearing someone describe the visuals in a passionless monotone. I know this is invaluable to the visually compromised but it's just there is no colour in the voice. It renders Burton's work into something fine that has a badly cut suit on. But it does what it says it does. There is no crew or cast commentary which given this superb presentation surprises me a little. But that said, there is enough on the 2nd disc to satisfy the curious and the fanatical.

Disc 2

The Subtitle choices for the Extras are English, German, Spanish, Arabic, Greek, Hebrew Icelandic and Portuguese.

1. Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd (26' 05")
A behind the scenes featurette that emphasizes the perceived commercial risks inherent in the production. It's nice to see Richard Zanuck in the chair looking pretty good for his 74 years (this man co-produced Jaws) extolling the creative virtues of Mr. Burton. Bonham-Carter comes across well as a Sondheim fanatic and nervous first time singer in one of the meatiest and more difficult musical roles that exists in anyone's repertoire. There's a song in Sweeney with no pauses for breath and that's no walk in the park (with George... Sondheim in-joke there. For dévotees only). As ever the behind the scenes stuff is fascinating. The work that goes into these movies still boggles the mind. Refreshing too, this mini-doc is not quite as luvvy-gushy as most of their ilk.

2. Sweeney Todd is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber (20' 06")
This is an interview and still illustrations led gentle stroll back in time to look at how the story got started. The big question is does any element of Sweeney's story have any basis in fact? The general impression is that it's fictitious but there are precedents. Apparently in Paris, a barber murdered someone who was then devoured by unsuspecting folk. That's about as close to being real as Sweeney gets. But the real surprise at the tail of this featurette is the name of the man who played Sweeney more than any other – on stage and on film. Now the fact that no one commented on this man's name makes me think behind the scenes they've probably exhausted the shocking, silly and absurd coincidence. Ready? The actor who has played Sweeney more than any other is Tod Slaughter. You have got to be kidding, right? Apparently not.

3. Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (12' 03")
Stephen Sondheim takes us back to the late seventies and the inspiration behind his jaw dropping, throat slicing musical. You get the sense we're covering all the bases here – which is a good thing.

4. Sweeney's London (16' 14")
A revealing 'then and now' exploration of Sweeney's London and a history lesson. In essence its subtext is "Aren't you glad you didn't live in those times?"

5. Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition (19' 13")
This one sticks out a bit as it's almost an advert for a San Francisco based Grand Guignol theatre and has very tenuous links to Sweeney. It's entertaining but tangentially so at best.

6. Designs for a Demon Barber (8' 54")
Wardrobe and Production designers give a tour of the set and the cozzies. English subtitles are provided for some thickly accented English contributions.

7. A Bloody Business (8' 51")
My favourite extra of the disc sees Prosthetics Guru Neil Scanlan give a throat slitting demonstration and it's utterly fascinating. As suspected there is no CG involved unlike the grisly CG throat slashing of From Hell, coincidentally with Johnny Depp as the lead. When Scanlan reveals the fake chest piece it's almost impossible to tell it from real flesh. With CG on the rise, we often easily forget that the other FX disciplines have gone through many changes. We're a long way from "Oh, that's obviously a dummy!" exclamations these days.

8. Razor's Refrain (8' 37")
And the award for the oddest extra goes to Razor's Refrain, a still picture montage (from in front and behind the cameras) to snatches of Sondheim's music. Unless I am missing something, it's utterly pointless. Yes, there are a few goofy pix of Burton et al but why to music and why not included in the next extra, the ubiquitous…

9. Photo Gallery
And here we go with 52 photos and designs from the movie that seem to be de rigueur for DVDs and have very little merit as a stand alone feature. What a grumpy old sod I can be sometimes.

summary

An excellent 2-Disc DVD that should unite and delight Sondheim, Burton and Depp fans featuring crystal clear surround sound and a startlingly clean and detailed full picture. Recommended.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

USA 2007
116 mins
director
Tim Burton
starring
Johnny Depp
Helena Bonham Carter
Alan Rickman
Timothy Spall
Sacha Baron Cohen
Jamie Campbell Bower
Laura Michelle Kelly

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English
Arabic
Greek
Hebrew
Icelandic
extras
English descriptive narration
Behind-the-scenes featurette
History of the Demon Barber featurette
Sondheim featurette
Sweeney's London featurette
Grand Guignol featurette
Design featurette
Make-up effects featurette
Photo galleries
distributor
Warner Home Video
release date
19 May 2008
review posted
18 May 2008