In February, I picked 'The Music Man' for an installment of "Shelf Life" specifically because I wanted to see how much I would (or could) enjoy a musical, particularly one I hadn't seen. As I admitted then, I'm not an aficionado nor even particularly a fan of the genre, and neither that film nor anything else I've seen since then has convinced me to throw out my list of existing favorites and fill in empty spots with stuff involving show tunes. That said, I do respect folks who like the form (as I do fans of any genre, regardless how much I like or dislike it), and keep in my home video collection a small cache of musicals and music-themed movies that I can frequently re-watch and fully enjoy.
One of these films is 'The Sound of Music,' which was a staple of my childhood, although I hadn't seen it in a while until Fox Home Entertainment put out their spanking-new, extras-packed Blu-ray, which features absolutely stunning presentation. Beyond my own sense of nostalgia for the film, I was curious to see whether it still held together as a film that audiences could relate to, especially in an era in which its theatricality – much less its epic structure – seems perfectly foreign. As such, this week's "Shelf Life" asks the question: are the hills indeed still alive with 'The Sound of Music?'
The Facts: 'The Sound of Music' was released on March 2, 1965 by Twentieth Century Fox, and it became an immediate commercial and critical success. Costing only $8 million to produce, the film earned almost $160 million in the U.S. and Canada alone, and by adjusted dollars the film has earned $1.046 billion, putting it third on the all-time top grossing films (after 'Gone With the Wind' and 'Star Wars'). Meanwhile, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning five, including for Best Picture, Best Director for Robert Wise, Best Sound, Best Adapted Score, and Best Film Editing. 'The Sound of Music' still maintains an 82 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is widely considered a benchmark of the musical genre.
What Still Works: At 176 minutes, it would be easy to suggest that the film cannot sustain its running time, particularly for contemporary audiences, but the film's slow-crescendo opening that slowly advances to the mountaintop where Maria (Julie Andrews) is singing the title song sucks you in, and 'The Sound of Music' doesn't let go until the very last frame. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman ('The Sweet Smell of Success') manages to juggle both the film's romanticism and its undercurrent of political conflict without sacrificing either, offering a tale that admittedly reassures audiences with a sort of wish-fulfillment happiness, but it's also one that features details and subtleties that cannot simply be considered Pollyanna-style, empty-headed cheerfulness.
Director Robert Wise made many movies in many different genres, and looking at later work like 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture,' it's easy to dismiss his style as a prototypical but seldom profound, operatic sort of storytelling. But in 'The Sound of Music,' his camera captures everything, and communicates far more non-verbally than one might expect in a musical. For example, in the scene in which Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) sings "Edelweiss" for the first time, the initial perspective objectively captures the geography of the characters in the room, including the locations of Maria and Baroness Schraeder (Eleanor Parker); during von Trapp's performance, we see from the Baroness' point of view that Maria has clearly fallen in love with the Captain – simply via a small gesture from Andrews – and it sets in motion a chain of events that drives the film towards its third act.
Additionally, during the party Captain von Trapp throws for the Baroness, the first shots of the sequence are of Hans Zeller, a partygoer with German sympathies, who notices the conspicuous absence of German flags hanging in the home. Not only does the ensuing conversation establish (or re-establish) von Trapp's nationalist tendencies towards his native Austria, it creates the character dynamic between Zeller and von Trapp that will eventually lead to the film's finale. And as perhaps the film's most effective use of cinematic technique to communicate story and combine the film's thematic ideas, the church bells that ring at Maria and Georg's wedding dissolve subtly into the austere, repetitious tones signaling the occupation of the Third Reich.
Notwithstanding the technique, the performances are all pretty incredible, even if some are slightly more melodramatic than others. But Andrews and Plummer are simply stunning in their respective roles, her communicating warmth and unquenchable passion, while he exudes a quiet authority that belies a desperate sort of romanticism, and the two of them do a really wonderful job creating a believable romance between these two seeming opposite personalities. The children are all terrific as well, and in particular what I really enjoyed was the variety of their voices; rather than enlisting a group of young singers who would provide a chorus for Maria and von Trapp, each of their singing voices has an individual personality that comes out in each song performed, even as a group.
And finally, the music and lyrics themselves are indisputably gorgeous, evocative and catchy as hell. It seems almost impossible to imagine not having at least three or four of the songs stuck in your head after watching the film, because their melodies are clean and beautiful, while the lyrics are poetic without being overly complicated. Further, they beautifully communicate character and story, such as with the aforementioned "Edelweiss," which becomes almost a eulogy for von Trapp's recognition that he and his family must flee the country that he loves so dearly.
What Doesn't Work: Although as a whole the film works beautifully and probably doesn't need to lose any fat, much less meat, I've always found many of the Abbey scenes to be either boring or distracting, and if 'The Sound of Music' was made today it seems likely that this is where the filmmakers would pare the film down. The main reason these scenes feel so superfluous is because we truly care so much about Maria and the von Trapp family that we want to see them sooner (especially if you've seen the film before) and then later don't want to waste time listening to the nuns proselytize when we could be watching the romance bloom and the main relationships deepen.
What's The Verdict: 'The Sound of Music' deserves the reputation it has earned as one of the all-time greatest movie musicals, not just because it appeals to non-musical doofuses like me, but because it exemplifies the absolute best of what a classic musical can be – intelligent, poetic, cinematic, and emotionally involving. In fact, it feels almost like a gateway drug for potential musical fans, because it's so good that it makes the viewer want to watch more films that happen to feature people who fail to express themselves through song. Ultimately, as an admitted non-expert, there may be better examples of classic Hollywood musicals, but it seems like there are few others that work quite as well as a film as a musical, and there are few that quite frankly non-musical fans can – and inevitably will – like as much as 'the Sound of Music.'