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.