Synopsis: Share the magical, heartwarming true-life story that has become the most popular family film of all time – Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. Julie Andrews lights up the screen as Maria, the spirited young woman who leaves the convent to become governess to the seven children of Captain von Trapp, an autocratic widower whose strict household rules leave no room for music or entertainment.
eyelights: Julie Andrews. the precision of the filmmaking. the gorgeous locations. the catchy songs. the musical performances.
eyesores: the horrid rear projection effects. some of the sets.
“How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”
Everyone has seen or at least has heard of ‘The Sound of Music’. When I was a kid, the darned thing played on television every other day. I remember how big a deal it was when it was shown: my classmates and I would make a point of tuning in and talking about its splendour the next day. At that age, there was no other spectacle even remotely like it.
I’ve seen it many times throughout the years, but it had been ages since I’d last watched ‘The Sound of Music’. I bought it on DVD back when it was first released and I may have watched it only the once, maybe twice, at the time. But I picked it up on Blu-ray because I’ve read that it looked and sounded marvelous in high definition (as well it should).
The thing is that I generally don’t like musicals. I despise them, really. The only ones I can safely admit to enjoying at the Julie Andrews ones, for some reason. And even then, ‘The Sound of Music’ is the one that I recall liking the least. So I wasn’t exactly in any hurry to see it. But I must admit that this time I was totally charmed by this extraordinary production.
There’s not much to the story, which is (very) loosely based on the von Trapp family’s experiences during World War II: Maria is a delinquent, daydreaming novice at a Salzburg nunnery who is sent out to be a governess by the Mother Abbess. Her playful nature wins over the children, and eventually their stuffy military father, transforming their lives.
It’s a three-hour epic that is tied together by musical numbers. The songs, which were crafted by legendary duo Rodgers and Hammerstein, thankfully are backed by simple choreography and frequently stand on their own; these are not elaborate MGM numbers; since Maria and the von Trapps’ sang a lot, their performances easily blend in the story.
‘The Sound of Music’ is a total feel-good picture. While there is dramatic tension along the way, notably in the romantic dynamics between Maria, Captain von Trapp and the Baroness, and later when Austria is annexed by Germany, the film expresses a joyfulness and vibrancy that defies all odds. Its message is looking at the bright side of life, even as it grows dim.
Clearly, this is not a motion picture for incurable cynics.
The first sequence sets it up beautifully, with long shots of the Alps in all their majesty. You can barely get more scenic and gorgeous; it’s utterly breathtaking. This is backed by the orchestra’s prelude, as they slowly get started, teasing the audience. It creates the impression that we are witnessing something epic, of no small significance.
Then we are introduced to Maria, as incarnated by Julie Andrews (in a star-making turn), singing the motion picture’s title song as she wanders about the green hilltops and woods gayly. We immediately know that we are being treated to a breath of fresh air, and can’t help but be taken with this shining, seemingly simple, good-natured young woman.
The number itself benefits from the location shooting, which helps it transcend a triteness that a stage would likely have enhanced. It also helps that Julie Andrews is a naturalistic performer, because she lets the song and the locale speak for themselves; she doesn’t try to grandstand or belt it out like some performers would have.
We are treated to the perfect primer on Maria as we go to the abbey, meeting a few of the nuns discussing this bewildering new girl in their midst. “Maria”, the song, not only expresses Maria’s nature and how she’s perceived, but it’s musically clever: it expertly switches between singing and dialogue all the while constantly shifting melodies. It’s extremely catchy.
Frankly, I don’t know if it’s just nostalgia talking, but I found many of the picture’s songs totally infectious and/or memorable.
- “Do-Re-Mi”: After having met the von Trapp family, Maria teaches them about the major musical scale in song. The song itself is fun, but what was lovely was how creatively the musical number was staged to move the song and characters along without seeming contrived. It took the characters to various locales and showed the passage of time instead of doing elaborate acrobatics. Brilliant.
- “The Sound of Music”: In a reprise of the title song, the children sing to the Baroness in a capella. This moved me because it served to defrost the Captain, who thus far had only shown his tough side. With the surface finally cracked, his softer self would start to shine through; he would reconnect with his children after many years of emotional rift.
- “The Lonely Goatherd”: This is a silly number that has Maria and the children doing an elaborate puppet show for their father, the Baroness and their uncle Max. But, you know what? I caught myself tapping my foot along to the number. That’s just how effectively (and surreptitiously) some of these songs get under your skin.
- “So Long, Farewell”: When Captain von Trapp throws a banquet for the Baroness, the children decide to do a number for the guests before going to bed. It is saccharine by today’s standards, but it’s a classic, with each kid distinguishing themselves in their own way lyrically and in their performance. It’s filled with cute bits.
The banquet is a lavish, awe-inspiring sight: everyone is dressed formally, filling the ballroom and the main floor. The whole mansion is jaw-dropping, with its gardens, the pavilion, the proximity of the river, …etc. The banquet is also the setting of a beautiful dance between Maria and the Captain, as it becomes evident that they are smitten with each other.
It isn’t long before the pair have to admit to their feelings, casting aside their previous ambitions, and decide to marry. The wedding was grandiose, in a huge, ancient cathedral (the abbey was a sight to behold, but this was even more impressive – what architecture!). I even found Maria’s dress beautiful. The song “Maria” made a perfect reappearance here.
Sadly, beauty turns to tragedy as the Nazis take over Austria: the wedding merges to the sight of Nazis stomping through a courtyard. Soon the family is escaping under the cover of darkness, due to the Captain being commissioned to join the German Navy. As he’s very much opposed to Nazism, he cannot bear to accept. An yet, refusing meant death for all of them.
I’ll never forget the scene in which they sneak out with their car, pushing it together with all the lights out. The presence of danger saturates the scene. And, when they’re invariably caught, Captain von Trapp’s interaction with his nemesis, Herr Zeller, turns into a most delicious exchange of bluffs and counter-bluffs – the kind that classic James Bond films delivered.
The family is forced to perform at an Austrian music festival, in an attempt to buy time. This show, which takes place in a magnificent stone-walled courtyard, is like a light in the middle of omnipresent doom, as the ominous Nazis stand in wait every arch, every doorway. The von Trapps have to find a way out, despite being in the spotlight and surrounded!
After a few emotional performances, the evening is capped with the festival’s top honours. There’s the introduction of the Third Prize winner, a humourous moment that has the winner bowing manically, and then the Second Prize winners. And then the great reveal: the First prize winners, the von Trapp Family Singers, have disappeared!!!
Frankly, I find the ending rather simplistic, what with the way they escape Herr Zeller’s grasp, but it’s an audience-friendly close to what is supposed to be light fare anyway. And it’s not entirely ridiculous – it’s just not as elaborate as one might expect in this context. But it’s okay because the sight of the family in the alps perfectly captures their freedom.
Clearly ‘The Sound of Music’ wouldn’t have been a success, if not for three key ingredients:
1. The songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein: clever, catchy, without being especially cheesy, these numbers are the glue that hold the whole musical together (Irwin Kostal won an Academy Award for his adaptations).
2. Robert Wise’s direction: the precision of the editing, choreography and overall storytelling is to be marveled by. He also knew exactly how to shoot all of the weathered locations in such a way that the camera embraced them instead of making them look dismal, as they very well could have. Wise couldn’t have done better with this material (in fact he won an Academy Award for it).
3. Julie Andrews as Maria: She was stellar in the role, excelling at her vocals, and overall performance (including the subtle comedic touches). She made of Maria a believably exuberant dreamer; a simple, feisty woman with her heart on her sleeve. She is absolutely pitch-perfect in the part, and won many awards; it’s no wonder that it would cats a shadow on the rest of her career.
Even the writing, as simple as the plot is, had its moments of greatness. At least a couple of lines made me smile for their cleverness:
- While discussing Maria together, one of the nuns says: “After all, the wool from the black sheep is just as warm.”. Nice.
- The first confrontation between Captain von Trapp and Herr Zeller had me in stitches.
Herr Zeller: “Perhaps those who would warn you that the Anschluss is coming – and it is coming, Captain – perhaps they would get further with you by setting their words to music.”
Captain von Trapp: “If the Nazis take over Austria, I have no doubt, Herr Zeller, that you will be the entire trumpet section.”
Herr Zeller: “You flatter me, Captain.”
Captain von Trapp: “Oh, how clumsy of me – I meant to accuse you.”
Honestly, I so enjoyed ‘The Sound of Music’ that scant aspects of it bothered me – and, even then, only mildly:
- Christopher Plummer is clearly not in his element. While it could be said that his character is meant to be stuffy, Plummer feels ill-fitting somehow. It is a known fact that he disliked the film tremendously, as well as Julie Andrews’ incessantly sunny disposition. Personally, I think that he was probably just suffering from cirrhosis (I jest, although he admitted to being drunk for some of the scenes). I would have preferred someone with the sharp edge and charisma of Timothy Dalton in the part (although he was too young at the time), but Plummer’s performance is such that it allowed Andrews to shine through the picture. So it worked out in a way.
- Many of the children’s musical performances are contrived, far too eager for my taste. In contrast with Andrews’ more subtle approach it was hard to watch. Thankfully, they weren’t all over-performing, and not all of the time. It’s only an issue some of the time. And barely.
- The really poor rear projection during car rides, …etc. Given that much of the film was shot on location or in elaborate, realistic sets, the rear projection looked like crap. I mean, there were outdoor sets that had terrible backdrops, too, but the rear projection was by far the worst.
- The abbey cemetery set at the end of the picture looked really fake. It was perfectly claustrophobic, but it looked like it was built on a soundstage, not like a location. Again, this is merely a problem because of the standard that all the breathtaking location shooting had set for much of the picture.
Otherwise, I was totally enthused revisiting ‘The Sound of Music’; by the intermission/entr’acte, I was astonished to find that 1h40m had flown by so swiftly. For a three-hour film, it’s spectacularly entertaining – more so than some 90-minute ones. It’s so breathtaking in scope that I can’t fathom a stage version, and it’s so near perfection that it couldn’t possibly have been done better.
Musicals are hardly one of my favourite things, but, while watching ‘The Sound of Music’, I don’t feel so bad.
Date of viewing: April 27, 2014