I've worked with Johnny so many times, and I think this is definitely one of my favorite characters because we've always talked about old horror movies, and the idea of being able to create something like that and see Johnny play a monster in a way is fantastic!
- Tim Burton on Sweeney Todd
Sweeney Todd is angry.
Who is Sweeney Todd?
The origin of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street dates back to the 1600s. A combination of stories about crazy barbers over the years added to his legend. The character is first most prominently featured in a London serial magazine in 1846. Films followed in the 1930s, and Stephen Sondheim's musical is based on a play version from the 1960s. When it hit Broadway in 1979, it won eight Tonys, including one for Best Musical, and two Grammys.
|Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Lovett) and Len Cariou (Sweeney Todd)|
Get ready for a shock!
Leading up to the movie's release, I saw a photo of Johnny on the set. He had a glaring white streak in his hair. I didn't get that either. (Johnny later explained the obvious: Sweeney's been through a shock.) Still, I was excited to see this thing. I was thrilled to hear that Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman were his costars, and I was intrigued that Sascha Baron Cohen also snagged a key role. With Tim Burton in charge, I had no idea what to expect from all these intriguing choices!
I tried to avoid seeing anything else about the movie because I like to be surprised by the finished product. But, inevitably, I eventually caught a preview on TV. You must have heard when it happened because it was as if a Beatle showed up in my apartment: Johnny was singing!!!
Apparently, Johnny kept everyone in suspense about his hidden talent. "We're here at the studio, sets were being constructed, wardrobe was being made, other actors and commitments were being made," Producer Richard Zanuck remembers. "Literally, we were spending millions of dollars on the picture, and not one person on earth had heard Johnny sing--and he's the star of the picture!" Producer Walter Parks concurs, "I think, at the end of the day, Stephen Sondheim didn't hear him sing before he decided that he would accept the fact that Johnny was going to do it. You just look at Johnny's body of work and you realize that this is a man that holds himself to the highest possible standard, and we all knew that if he said he could do it, he could do it."
|Bruce Witkin, on the left, has the best pompadour.|
For help, Johnny called on his childhood friend Bruce Witkin. Johnny first moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s with dreams of snagging a record contract with his band The Kids, and Bruce Witkin was the lead singer. Still working in music now, Bruce Witkin helped Johnny learn and record all the songs for Sweeney Todd. "We started knocking them down, one by one," Johnny recalls. "We started with 'My Friends.' That was the first song I ever sang in my life. I don't even sing in the shower. It was pretty weird. Yeah, scary!" (It's awesome!!!!!!!!!)
Bring on the music!
|Tim Burton, Johnny, and Bruce Witkin, working on Sweeney |
Todd: It's a tough call who has the best hair in this room.
Unlike his other roles, Johnny found Sweeney Todd in the music. "The character actually came out of the singing, out of the words, Sondheim's words, his melodies, the emotion that the arrangements kind of evoke. I heard him before I saw him." Johnny didn't take any singing lessons to prepare for this role either. He didn't imagine Sweeney Todd was the kind of guy who would bother to take lessons. In Sweeney's case, singing was purely an emotional release.
It seems that Tim Burton was the only one who wasn't really concerned about his star's abilities. "I remember when I first heard Johnny. I thought, 'That's amazing! He sounds like some kind of rock star!' Just by the nature of him doing it brings something different to it. I'd say that about all the actors because they're not singers. They all bring a certain modern quality to it, which is in the piece, but it just pushes it that much further."
Unlike Johnny, Helena Bonham Carter, who has always wanted to be in a musical (and to be Mrs. Lovett specifically), tackled her role with weeks of singing lessons. "If you're going to sing, and you're going to do your first musical, it's really stupid to be Mrs. Lovett," she says. If you watch, Mrs. Lovett has to go that extra mile: Some of her songs are fast and require multitasking, whether it's baking or interacting with other people in the scenes. Before filming began, she had to imagine what her musical scenes would be like, including what she thought the other actors involved might do. Then, she recorded the songs to fit the anticipated actions accordingly. As usual, she's amazing!
Excited about seeing this wonderful cast, all I was worried about was the blood. Surprisingly, the studios weren't so concerned: "It was an amazing thing," Tim Burton describes proposing this project to the powers that be. "You go, 'We're going to make an R-rated musical with lots of blood, with no professional singers, about a serial killer and cannibalism,' and they go, 'Great!' I've never had that happen in my life before. That gave me hope that there are still people in Hollywood that are willing to try different things."
Sweeney Todd was released on Christmas Day. I knew that when I went home to Ohio for the holidays and Dad referred to it as "that slasher movie," no one in my family was interested in being dragged out in the middle of winter to see Sweeney Todd with me. So, I planned to see it as soon as I got back to D.C.
This delay turned out to be a blessing because, as a consolation prize, I allowed myself to watch all the Sweeney Todd specials on MTV, HBO, Starz and wherever else. I learned all the behind-the-scenes secrets about making the perfect mixture of "blood," the variety of razor blades, throat-slitting techniques, and stunts. I started to compare the gore to Monty Python's skit spoofing the violence in Sam Peckinpah movies. Somehow, that was comforting and made me feel more prepared for sitting in a dark theater to watch it on the big screen.
The truth is that my blood and gore tolerance preparation went out the window when I got to the theater, so I averted my eyes from all the blood the first time I saw Sweeney Todd. Instead of witnessing any of the murders straight on, I only saw red out of the corner of my eye as I focused on other things in the scene. What's going on outside that window behind him? What's that picture on the wall? I'm into details, after all.
There is a lot of blood.
But I'm in love!
Rest assured, Sweeney Todd is not all blood and guts or any kind of slasher film. This is a good story! "The violence is secondary to the motive," Stephen Sondheim explains. "It's a story about revenge, and it's about how revenge eats itself up. In that sense, it's a tragedy. It's the classic tradition of somebody who goes out for revenge and ends up destroying himself." Doesn't that sound great?
Is the third time a charm?
|Johnny with Vanessa Paradis at the 2008 Academy Awards|
With his eighth nomination, Johnny did win his first Golden Globe for this performance! But, to my extreme disappointment, that was the year the writer's strike happened and the live televised Golden Globes event was cancelled. In addition to winning an Oscar for art direction and a Golden Globe for Best Picture, Sweeney Todd was nominated for and won a bunch of other well-deserved awards around the world. The film earned honors for Tim Burton, the actors (notably Johnny, Helena Bonham Carter, and newcomer Ed Sanders, who is excellent as Toby), and the crew (for art direction, production design, and costume design). I didn't call it a masterpiece for nothing!
Gordon can sing too!
Drawing something for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd was intimidating--not because of the blood but because I love nearly everything about it! Whatever lofty plans I had to capture the whole look and feel of this movie, Gordon was ready since he helped celebrate Sweeney Todd the first time around. After I first saw the movie, Gordon dressed up as Sweeney and tested out his lungs--putting all The Kitties in stitches!
|Stitches (Illustration Friday: January 11, 2008)|
Watching the movie again recently, I noticed how reflections and mirrors are used as Johnny sings "My Friends." In that spirit, I made the panels look like broken mirrors. The first row highlights a few key moments in the film since I couldn't decide on a favorite. They are:
- Sweeney singing "My Friends" about his treasured razors (with Mrs. Lovett/Mini checking out her competition).
- An iconic moment in which Sweeney finally feels at home.
- And, Sweeney's determined look out his barber shop window at London and it's unsuspecting citizens--a climactic moment at the end of the scene.
This story does not have a happy ending. (But it's awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Where else did Johnny show up that year?
Johnny participated in three documentaries in 2007, all of which I recommend! They are listed below.
- Brando. This documentary, which original aired on Turner Classic Movies, explores the life of Johnny's mentor and friend Marlon Brando.
- Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. Learn all about the charismatic lead singer of The Clash. It'll leave you inspired to run out buy his music (or more of it), as I did.
- Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. If you're not already a fan of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, this 4-hour documentary will make you one. You might remember that Johnny appeared in the band's video for "Into the Great Wide Open" in 1993. I mentioned it while celebrating Film #7, Arizona Dream; you can see the video in that blog post here.
Johnny trades in his razors for guns and goes gangsta in Public Enemies.
Image credits: Sweeney Todd film and film-related images © Dreamworks and Warner Brothers Pictures, Sweeney Todd on Broadway © unknown (1979); The Kids band image © Suzanne Allison; 2008 Academy Awards red carpet image © Getty images; illustrations © Melissa Connolly