Anyone can sing, but not everyone who can sing is a singer

Movie Review: Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”, a film adaptation of the musical by Stephen Sondheim


All the hype and gripe over Tim Burton’s screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s much revered opus, Sweeney Todd, can be a little tiring. Most of the chatter—which can be found, among other places, at the be-your-own-critic section of The Times online, which we would normally support if it didn’t amount mostly to just another comments section—focuses on a few narrow points that arise from comparing original stage versions with the film: Which is more effective? Does it work to have the actors in the film so much younger than the characters? Is the music cut too drastically? Is the blood aesthetic—at once both gory and cartoonish (think Tarantino but with more CGI)—overdone? Can the actors (namely Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter) sing? Through all the debate, this last is the most interesting point, and one that people seem generally not to fully consider.

Most people’s responses are either that the voices sounded good, or they sounded bad. But little heed is given to observing exactly what we are listening to when we hear the actors sing in the movie. What criteria is being used in judging the vocal performances of the actors? And what do we expect to hear from this, a film adaptation of a Broadway musical?

The fact is that all of the actors in this film have acoustically small voices. That is, if we were in a very small room with any of them, we would be able to appreciate their voices just fine, but put them on a stage without aid of electronic amplification and you’ll be lucky if you can hear them at all. These are voices meant only to be used in recording, not live.

What’s interesting is that the music industry has invented a term for this: recording artist. When we call someone a “recording artist,” we mean someone like—to use the most obvious and successful example—Madonna. She is not a “singer,” like Christina Aguilera is a singer. But her voice, when recorded, draws our attention and, when matched with the iconographic media that is design to accompany and promote the musical image, becomes its own kind of art: recording art, so to speak. When Madonna performs, it is her presence, her persona (which includes her voice) that is entertaining. Ms. Aguilera may have an appealing persona as well, but it is her vocal performance, more than any of the other elements of her pop personality—that makes us pay attention to her, and love her.

The choice for Sweeney Todd (and to be clear, I’m not saying either way if this was the right choice) was to use non-singers, or actors capable of holding a tune but not possessing a genuine singing voice, which, in the context of this film, works. You hear the nuance of the voice much more than you hear the style of the voices (with the exception of the few times Depp produces a noticeably contemporary pop/rock sound). Recorded at close range, you hear more of the actors’ personalities—or characterizations—in the voice than you hear technique or true “singing,” at least, when compared to our expectations of what a “singer” should sound like, even on something as potentially vapid and anti-critical as American Idol: Even on that show, you have to have a voice.

But this analogy is only an extension of an affect that has long been understood in film: that the media amplifies the real, or, that it allows us a previously unimaginable intimacy to the phenomenon of performance. That’s why great film actors are rarely great stage actors, and vice-a-versa; the former are usually great at subtlety but then come undone when the stage demands them to be bigger without exaggerating to the point of clown, and the latter tend to be at home being big in the theater but don’t necessary have the allure of stillness that make some the greatest film actors timelessly appealing.

The close proximity that media grants the audience to the performer totally changes the terms of performance, which absolutely changes what we consider good and bad. By these standards, what Britney Spears does on her recordings is good, but she is not a good singer. Likewise, what Depp and company do in Sweeney Todd is good, but none of them are good singers, at least, not as far as I could tell from the film.

There are a lot of wonderful elements in the film worth comment. There is humor, despite a lot of complaints to the contrary. And Sondheim’s music, even abbreviated, is still compelling and dramatically entrancing on its own.

Of particular note is when Sweeney goes on his first murderous rampage, cutting people’s throats left and right, while he and Anthony, singing in duet, lament the loss of Johanna. The music lulls you into its sympathetic beauty and longing while the violent visual images challenge your sympathy for Todd and your sensitivity to the music. It’s a delicious trap and one that could only have been done, as it was, cinematically.

Sondheim is basically standing behind the movie (or is he really standing out of the way?). I think it’s successful, regardless of what those loyal to the play may fear of the way Burton cuts up their baby. Sondheim argues that the movie has to move fast, faster than a play, so the music had to be cut. But personally, Burton’s movies always feel a little claustrophobic in their tight-wound trajectory, giving little room for pause and reflection. His Sweeney Todd is much the same; it ploughs forward to the tragic end, with lots of blood and beautiful music along the way. I feel they could have let a little more of the music in; for breath, for life, for the sake of its own beauty, which is really what makes this not just another Tim Burton movie: Even flattened and abridged, it is “Sweeney.”

1 Comment

  1. Bravo! Most interesting …

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