Johnny Depp: Master of His Craft

Did you see Johnny Depp in “Sweeney Todd:The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”?

The reason I ask is that, while I found the whole gory spectacle to be lusciously dark and haunting, the real shocker was Johnny Depp’s astounding vocal performance. Really a revelation.

So often the high quality of singing in a filmed musical is distracting. The songs are more star-turns than integrated elements of a story. At worst, they are so operatically overwrought that they detract from whatever story might be developing. My favorite example of conspicuously inappropriate singing in a film was Rossano Brazzi’s slightly ridiculous rendition of Some Enchanted Evening in Josh Logan’s film “South Pacific” (1958).

I still am not sure how to describe Johnny Depp’s epic accomplishment. I know he was singing. But he was also doing something very different, using music and an idiosyncratic voice to express the anguish of a tortured soul. This was the “singing” of an extraordinary actor, for whom storytelling trumped vocal pyrotechnics.

It reminded me of a sad funeral I had to attend many years ago for a young man accidentally killed in gang-related crossfire. I knew his mother, and her wailing during the service remains the most haunting sound I have ever heard. Her convulsive tears seemed to be coming from a corner of the soul where only the most painful grief resides.

Johnny Depp seemed to sing from this same place.

When I left the theatre, I thought: This was extraordinary. But the purists, the opera crowd, will never appreciate it.

So imagine how I felt a few months back when read a review of Depp’s performance by New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini. I was stunned. Tommasini, whose usual beat is opera, was stunned by the quality of Depp’s performance. This is an excerpt from the review:

“In Mr. Depp’s portrayal, words come first in the shaping of a phrase. Expression, nuance, intention and controlled intensity matter more than vocal richness and sustaining power. These principles of vocal artistry matter just as much onstage, as the best operatic artists understand. But too many opera singers are overly focused on making beautiful sounds and sending notes soaring at the expense of crisp diction and textual clarity. They could learn something from Mr. Depp’s verbally dynamic singing… I don’t mean to suggest that his vocal performance is merely a savvy kind of sung speech. There is musical distinction in his work.”

Go directly to your NETFLIX queue.

13 thoughts on “Johnny Depp: Master of His Craft

  1. Ah, I adore Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd! His performance was indeed remarkable. He approached the singing as an actor who sings, rather than a singer who acts, and my goodness, didn’t he do well?

    The only pity is that the marketing tried to hide the fact that it was a musical. Why? I’ll never know, but it did mean some people came away disappointed. Me, I LOVE it! His Todd is vivid, tragic, beautiful, sexy and funny, all at the same time.

  2. Ah, a fellow Deppian!

    Seriously, this was the kind of performnace that lead me to a complete rethinking of music as a form of dramatic expression. I have have sung in opera choruses and even had a solo in a student opera at Columbia a long time ago. I appreciate opera. But that’s always been my problem: I APPRECIATE it.

    I have rarely been able to go from appreciation to deep emotional engagement. The singing style, while a remarkable craft, was simply not of my generation. I could not allow myself to be completely immersed in a story or a characater. I could — for example — feel pain listening to Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. But in no way did Dido live and breathe as a character.

    And then came Depp.

    Where did this voice, this pain, come from? I wish I had the language to describe just what he was doing. You, Jay, have come close and so did Anthony Tommasini.

    At times I thouight I was hearing a new hybrid form in which his voice had a life separate and apart from his acting, bypassing any conscious acting choices and streaming from soul (his) to ear (mine).

    But of course no actor really does this. They are artists and creaftsmen who make artistic choices and create characters. But what a illusion.

    I hate “who is the best?” questions and prefer “who is your favorite?

    Besides, who could reasonably choose between other master craftsmen like Sean Penn, Alvin Epstein, Pacino, Bruce Dern, Merryl Streep, John Glover, William H. Macy, Bruno Ganz, Frances McDormand, Jack Lemmon, Simone Signoret, Seymour Philip Hoffman, Harry Dean Stanton, and all the others?

    I’ll take Depp.

  3. Thank you, Steve, for a well-written article. I read Mr. Tommasini’s article a few months ago and it was very nice to have this man mirror my own views of Depp’s singing in Sweeney Todd. Sure, I appreciate a nice voice, but there is something unique about Depp’s singing. I truly enjoy listening to him and hope that someday, he sings again. To quote Tommasini: “But, what a way to go out.”

  4. You make a good point: there are a good handful of other extremely talented actors out there and the choice is more ‘who do you like’ than ‘who is best’, but I’ll take Depp, too. I honestly do think he’s one of the shining stars of his generation, possibly the best.

    As to how he produced this particular stunning performance, you may or may not know that his daughter Lily-Rose suffered a life-threatening e-coli infection during the filming of Sweeney Todd. He took time off filming – and production was halted – so that he could be with her in hospital, and he says that that experience came through in his performance. It’s easy to see how the near loss of his own precious daughter could affect his interpretation of a man who had lost his family.

    But of course, not every actor would have been able to pull all that emotion out of the hat and inject it into the singing as he did.

  5. Well I do declare! I had no idea about his daughter. I’ll bet you are right that used that in his performance. By the way, I am always interested in anyone’s favorite Depp performances. I have a #1 that looms — for me — above the others. My guess is that it would probably would not be on everyone’s list.

    Ed Wood.

  6. Ed Wood is incredible, for sure. I ain’t tired of watching it yet!

    I’m not sure I could pick out my favourite performance, since they are all so different. I have a handful of favourites; Sweeney Todd goes without saying, and John Wilmot (Libertine) has to be among the top few, even if the film itself wasn’t perfect. I also love his Willy Wonka (charlie and the Chocolate Factory – priceless!), William Blake (Dead Man), and Sam (Benny & Joon).

    But my all-time favourite character is Fred Abberline (From Hell). I can’t explain why, he just ‘grabs me’.

  7. Tell you a funny but true story: There is something so deep and primally disturbing to me about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that I am unable to watch it. I can be sitting around with a group of kids who are lapping it up, yet something kicks in after a few minutes that I find profoundly unsettling. No, not unsettling. Terrifying.

    It must connect to something I have buried so deeply that it will remain buried.

    But, and I know this sounds hyperbolic, I find it nothing short of horrifying.

    Wonka and, especially, Oompa Loompa.

    Ed Wood: Someday I may do a post about it. It features a whole host of grotesques who were smack dab in the middle of the life of any kid who, like me, grew up in 1950s and 1960s Los Angeles.

    Of course, Johnny was sublime. But when the film gave cameos to Criswell (I predict) and to the long forgotten Korla Pandit, an exotic and silent Indian organist (who, it was revealed many years later, was actually an African American) I was ecstatic.

    My producer fantasy? I give Tim Burton and Johnny Depp $10 million (a tiny amount in the world of feature film), lock them in a room, and tell them they have a limit of 8 hours to come up with a completely new concept, story, and film treatment that could have only two cast members — Johnny Depp and a “to be determined” female.

    Furthermore, part of their task in the 8 hours would be to come up with a list of 10 possible female actors to cast. This list could not include Helena Bonham Carter.

    I adore her, but — in this producer fantasy — I imagine myself looking for a new Depp/somebody combination.

    I have truly lost my mind.

  8. Just loved your comments!! We get so sick of people that just don’t get him. He is an amazing actor and once someone just watches a movie to watch him.. they understand! But you have to convice them to do that, once they do they are 99% of the time converted and then a die hard Depp fan!
    I love your idea, those two could come up with a great script and concept for a new movie. There are several actresses I would like to see him with in a role.
    Funny your reaction about Willy Wonka.. totally enjoyed your whole article/blog.. thank you!!


  9. Actually, Kim, I thought about “Charlie” as I did today’s day camp car pool. And I realized that it was Oompa Loopa that scared me.

    That scene where a thousand Oompa Loompas show up.


  10. Love your “Producer Dream” Can I please be a fly on the wall and watch them work? That would make my life complete!

    And you know, it’s not just Johnny’s acting ability, which is incredibly unmatched, but the “off camera” man, as a person. His humility, kindness and integrity should be an example to all of us. He is the type of person that we should all aspire to be.

  11. You know what, Steve? I think Johnny himself would like your produce fantasy. Whether his agent would allow him to do it is another matter! As to who you could get as a totally new pairing for him .. hmm … somewhere in my head a voice is screaming ‘ME ME ME ME ME!!’ LOL!

    I understand about the Oompa Loompas, I really do. But maybe Gene Wilder also influenced you as a child – he was just plain creep as Willy Wonka, in my opinion. Shame he was so resentful of the new movie, too.

    Laurie – an awful lot of people feel the same way, especially having met him. He’s just one of those guys who make you want to be a better person. On the other hand, he does seem to trigger thoughts of adultery!

  12. He actually triggers all kinds of thoughts.. He does envoke many to want to be better, nicer, more honest and to share. I think those that don’t get it think that is silly but I think we have all seen firsthand what effect he has on us, and others (don’t go there..haha) One of his best qualities “humility” could teach many a lesson. He truly appreciates and values what he has and he knows where it came from, and acts accordingly. How many “stars” have done what he has done like in Wisconsin and Illinois, spending all day (and night) filming and then coming and spending time with all the people that had been standing waiting for the “chance” to see him. Just amazing, just when you think the man couldn’t be sweeter he does something else that just blows you away!
    As one of the girls on our board stated.. “I’ve never ever seen a board like this, no bad words, everyone is so kind, no arguments about unimportant stuff. It’s like we’re all connected by our favorite man Johnny, so there is no reason to not like each other. ”

    What more is there?? If more people acted like he does the world would be a much nicer place.
    Sorry for my ranting.. will stop now.. 😀

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