Love him for his quirky visual style or hate him for his apparently deliberate appeal to that subsection of the teenage market that dresses in black all the time, mostly while writing dire poetry about death and unrequited love, Tim Burton is undoubtedly one of the more interesting and individual of mainstream Hollywood directors. Somehow always able to create films that look like no others – even with his occasional misses, like the ill-judged “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes – Burton’s movies have a style all their own, and that should always be cause for celebration.
Bar his two superb Batman films, which helped to kick-start the movies’ love of superheroes again after the disappointing Superman IV, much of Burton’s best work has involved an acting superstar that Burton himself helped create way back in 1990 with the oddball fairy tale Edward Scissorhands. Now more popular than ever thanks to his glorious outings in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Johnny Depp is back with his most regular director – and you just know that the end result is going to be interesting.
With a director-actor trust and understanding like few others, Burton loves to indulge Depp’s more extreme experiments with characterisation and, playing off each other perfectly, the result has been a succession of wonderful creations. Be it the scissor-fingered, leather-clad Edward or the geeky investigator of Sleepy Hollow, the overly eccentric Willy Wonka or the lovably deluded filmmaker of Ed Wood, Depp’s performances in Burton’s films are always something special.
This latest outing for the pair, however, is something altogether different. Yes, on the surface it could seem much like any other Burton/Depp film. Once again, the star looks pale and drawn. Once again, the film’s colour palette seems largely to be made up of blacks and greys. Once again, the action takes place in a world at once gritty and fantastically unlike the real one. Once again, the subject-matter – the famous tale of the London barber who murders his customers and has them turned into pies – is decidedly dark.
Yet this is a musical – based on the hit Steven Sondheim Broadway show, which has thrilled audiences around the world since its first performance back in 1979. More to the point, this is a musical without proper singers – just regular actors like Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Borat himself, Sacha Baron Cohen. All of whom are performing all their own songs.
Burton may like to experiment and take risks, but taking a bunch of actors who have never sung and whacking them in a multi-million dollar movie surely takes the biscuit. Talking apes? Fine. A children’s movie featuring a main character who looks like something out of a horror film? No problem. But a bunch of untested singers belting out Broadway show tunes? Never mind that Depp’s star has never been higher, the studios must have worried with this one, surely?
But don’t forget Burton’s previous musicals, the animated Corpse Bride and A Nightmare Before Christmas. Both were great fun, and Nightmare has picked up an insanely loyal cult following over the years. If anyone can pull this off, he can. And one thing is certain – though both have made their own respective mistakes in the past, there has yet to be a Tim Burton film with Johnny Depp in the lead that hasn’t been well worth watching. This, their sixth film together, is no exception.