Both Tim Burton’s 2007 movie adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” and Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movied adaptated by Jay Cocks from Herbert Asbury’s history The Gangs of New York are set in the 19th century slums and are drenched in blood. Neither was a box-office smash hit.
Sweeney Todd is the name of a fictional London serial killer who first appeared in the Victorian “penny-dreadful” novel, The String of Pearls (1847). Bill the Butcher (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, usually in a top hat), the violent head of the nativist New York gang the Plug Uglies, and their Irish antagonists, the Dead Rabbits, are based in history, though the reall Bill’s last name was “Poole” rather than his apter middle name, “Cutting.” The Irish immigrant head of the Dead Rabbits, Priest” Vallon (played by Liam Neeson) is a composite. Moreover, Bill the Butcher died in 1855 (at the age of 34), before the American Civil War and the New York conscription riots (though the battle in Paradise Square [now Christopher Columbus Square in lower Manhattan] is set in 1846 in the movie). “Boss” Tweed (played by Jim Broadbent as a charming, cynical rogue) is definitely a historical figure (of considerable notoriety), who was running Tammany Hall by 1863. And the (anti-)draft riots of mid-July 1863 also definitely took place.
Both movies have blades hidden away for years. “Amsterdam” Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to Five Points (lower Manhattan) in 1862 (16 years after seeing his father killed by Bill) and receives his father’s blade. Barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) was dispatched by corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) to the prison colony of Australia in 1833. Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) whose pie shop is beneath the barber shop, hid the barber’s blades and gives them back to him (now calling himself “Sweeney Todd”)when he returns 15 years after his deportation.
Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher is the most flamboyant character in “Gangs of New York.” He kills people in fights, whereas Depp’s barber slays customers unaware of the peril. Though animated by rage at past injustice (depriving him of his beloved wife and their daughter), Depp’s throat-slasher borders on affectlessness. The most flamboyant character in “Gangs of New York” is Sacha Baron Cohen’s fake-Italian barber Adolfo Pirelli. Also, Cohen is the only member of the cast with any real singing talent. (Having a singing voice has become oddly not requisite in recent musicals, including “Mamma Mia!” and “Les Misèrables,” though I think Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, and Jim Broadbent did fine in “Moulin Rouge.”) Depp and Carter have small voices, though at least they can carry a tune. (I don’t know if Carter can read music. In the making-of-featurette she mentions growing up with a score of “Sweeney Todd”; Depp says he cannot read music.)
I saw Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in the national tour of “Sweeney Todd” in 1981 (the cast that was videorecorded fot the 1982 PBS presentation, which I also have). They have (had?) bigger voices, and Lansbury’s Mrs. Lovett has a lot more joie de vivre, reveling in the success of her meat pies once she has a steady supply of meat form upstairs. I blame Burton more than Carter for the pale (Corpse Bride makeup) reincarnation of Mrs. Lovett in the movie, and for making the movie more about the barber than the pie-shop-keeper.
Depp has pallid makeup, too, and his voice lacks the force of Hearn (who was not the original Sweeney Todd; that part was originated by Len Cariou). I don’t see that Depp deserved an Oscar nomination as best actor or the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical. (The Oscar for art direction seems easier to understand. And Daniel Day-Lewis won the best actor Oscar that he probably should have won for “Gangs of New York” for his similarly intense performance in “No Country for Old Men” in competition with Depp’s Sweeney. Adrien Brody as “The Pianist” won for 2002)
I’d say that the pleasant DiCaprio of 2002 lacks the gravitas and dramatic heft for the part of The Avenger. (He does not have to sing. “Gangs of New York” is definitely not a musical. Its U2 music has been criticized by some as anachronistic, but Baz Luhrman has inoculated me against concern about that with both “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby” using rock music in long-ago settings.)
I think that Ed Sanders is good (singing and acting) as the young orphan Mrs. Lovett takes on as an assistant, Toby Ragg and that Jayne Wisener is particularly lacking as a singer, playing the part of Judge Turpin’s ward and the barber’s lost daughter, Johanna Barker. Jamies Bower is somewhat better than OK as her suitor Anthony Hope. As Amsterdam’s love interest (and I think former prostitute) Jenny Everdeane, Cameron Diaz adds little to “Gangs,” while the dependable John C. Reilley delivers as the Irish cop bought off by the Nativists, “Happy Jack” Mulraney.
I liked “Sweeney Todd” onstage, but find it hard to like either Burton’s movie version of it or Scorsese’s epic of gang violence in mid-19th-century Manhattan. The two-disc DVD of “Gangs of New York” has a lot more in the way of bonus features (the movie itself is split between the two discs), including featurettes on the sets, the costumes, the history of Five Points, and a Discovery Channel tie-in “The Real Gangs of New York.” Though rarely having anything in particular to do with what is on the screen, Scorsese is always interesting as a raconteur. There are also trailers and a music video of U2’s “The Hands That Built America.”
BTW, “Sweeney” cost $50 million five years (and some inflation) later than the $97-100 million cost of “Gangs.” (“Sweeney” earned more than its estimated budget in US release; “Gangs” earned more than “Sweeney,” but less than its budget in US release.)
The exteriors of “Gangs” were filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome. “Sweeney” was filmed at the Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamsire, England. German-born cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (who had also shot “After Hours” (1985), “The Color of Money” (1986), “The Last Temptation of Christ “(1988), “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Age of Innocence” (1993), and “The Departed” (2006) Scorsese was Oscar-nominated for “Gangs”; Polish-born cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who also shot “The Rum Diary,” Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and all the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies with Depp, was not.
There is a two-disc blu-ray edition of “Sweeney Todd” that has more bonus features than the DVD I have, which does have an informative making-of featurette titled “Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd” that includes some Sondheim interview. He accepted elision of “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” (and its seven reprises)He says he was not satisfied with movies of other musicals of his (“A Little Night Music” is a complete disaster; I like Phil Silvers in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” but it is not a very good movie; I assume he does not mean the tv captures of stage productions of “Company,” “Into the Woods,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” each of which I think is superb). Carter says he had casting approval, though he says nothing about the actors singing his lyrics and music. (Not Whie I’m Around, Pretty Women, Johanna, The Worst Pies in London, are still there without “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.”)