Maybe we'll remember 2007 as a year when an unjust and belatedly unpopular war continued to rage. The year of the Virginia Tech killings. A year when few could deny the ravaging effects of de-industrialization in places like Detroit. A year when hawkish, pro-war Democrats bucked it out with each other to challenge one of the "meet the new boss..." white dudes from the GOP. Dark times. And dark times call for pop culture that might be escapist or might just be a big old shiny mirror reflecting the bleak landscape. Yes, the musical.
Was 2007 the year of the musical? Enjoyable and odd films like "Hairspray" (camp at the megaplex) and "Once" (try a little indie tenderness) saw success. I haven't seen "Dewey Cox" or "Across the Universe" yet, but they both appear to offer fresh takes on the painfully familiar: the biopic genre and the Beatles legacy, respectively. And of course the brilliant "I'm Not There," a relentlessly strange personal essay about various versions of Bob Dylan. The only remotely negative thing I can say about "I'm Not There" is that Cate Blanchett's complete embodiment of Dylan in '65 is so good that it ends up overshadowing the rest of the film.
The greatest Year of the Musical artifact of all is Tim Burton's film version of "Sweeney Todd." For those not in the know, Sweeney Todd tells the story of a wronged barber in Victorian London who kills his customers and sends the corpses downstairs where his landlady uses them to make meat pies for her cafe. I could write about the funny and dark brilliance of Sondheim's Sweeney songs. I could reminisce about my high school's production of Sweeney in which I was Beadle Bamford, played in the film by Timothy Spall, aka Peter Pettigrew from the Harry Potter films. I could say something about how Burton and Johnny Depp collaborate to create an entire universe every time they make a movie. Instead, let me say that Burton's version of Sweeney Todd looks at revenge and hate and blood and the dark corners of the soul.
Any adaptation of Sweeney must meditate on desperation, but Burton's version is decidedly light on the comic flourishes (not that Sacha Baron Cohen doesn't bring the funny as Perelli, not that a song like "A Little Priest"--about eating meat pies made of dead clergymen--has lost any of its humor) and heavy on gruesome murder. In a movie, you can get a much closer look at throats being slit than you can watching a play from a balcony. Burton includes a sequence in which we see one bloody killing after another. A musical montage like you've never seen--one in which each body falls to the basement with an unforgettable thud. The whole film is a dark, nihilistic vision. Absolutely beautiful. Johnny Depp famously used Keith Richards as a hallmark for his role in the Pirate movies. Here, he uses Johnny Rotten, looking around with a sneer and a set of bad teeth at a London whose poverty bores him. This is a musical for an era of pre-emptive war and senseless bloodshed and urban blight.