The Film: 'The Sound of Music' (1965), Dir. Robert Wise
Starring: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydyn and Peggy Wood.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: The truth? I've actually seen 'The Sound of Music.' The harsher truth? I was twelve years old when I saw it. The harshest truth? The twelve year old me hated it with a blinding, powerful, fiery passion unrivaled by the strength of a thousand suns. The final truth? As clearly as I remember that seething hatred, I don't remember the actual film at all, only the vaguest details. Now that I'm older and maybe slightly wiser and certainly less of a complete and total moron, it's time to give this classic a fair shake.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions: I'd like to introduce a special guest who's come a long way through time and space to help me with this week's Pre-Viewing Assumptions section. Through the power of imaginary time travel, please give a warm welcome to the twelve year old version of myself!
Me: So, tell me about 'The Sound of Music.'
12 Year Old Me: It's stupid.
Me: Okay...maybe you could be a little more specific. What's it about? What's the plot?
12 Year Old Me: It's about this stupid nun played by Mary Poppins who has to take care of these stupid kids. It's stupid. And the kids are like these really annoying brats, so annoying that you want to punch them in their stupid faces. And then she tries to teach them about manners and they don't like her and pull pranks on her and stuff so she goes to a field and sings about the hills and feels better 'cuz she has faith in God and all that. They're all supposed to be German but they talk in English accents and that's stupid. I hate them. And it's a musical, so it's all gay and stuff.
Me: My, aren't we eloquent and thoughtful.
12 Year Old Me: What?
Me: Nothing. Moving on. What happens next?
12 Year Old Me: Then it's the second half and World War II happens and the Nazis show up and they have to run away and hide so the holocaust doesn't happen to them and you'd think it would get cool but it doesn't. No one even dies! If the holocaust was happening to me, I wouldn't be singing about crap I like. Why does she like bright copper kettles and mittens so much? Nuns are boring. I'd be singing about video games and sh*t.
Me: Wait. Nazis? Nazis are in 'The Sound of Music'? What you're describing sounds like a family friendly, musical version of 'The Pianist.' That actually sounds pretty interesting. I can dig that.
12 Year Old Me: What the hell is 'The Pianist'? And it's not like the nun goes around killing Nazis like Indiana Jones. There are Nazis in 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks,' dude.
Me: Ick. Point taken. But let's get serious here. 'The Sound of Music' is one of the most famous films of all time, a major Oscar winner and at the time of its release, the highest grossing film of all time. Surely there's something to appreciate here?
12 Year Old Me: Nope. Nothing happens. Just a lot of singing. They should afraid of World War II but all they do is sing about stuff. A lot. Is bad stuff even allowed to happen in a musical? It's just three hours of boringness.
Me: I don't think that's a word, but okay, I can see where you're coming from. From the outside looking in, three hours feels like a length that has to be earned and conceptually, 'The Sound of Music' sounds like a film that can't fill that running time without bogging down considerably. That's a length a stage play can earn through the immediacy of a live performance, but I'd imagine a film adaptation would have to cut a song or six to keep things working for the screen.
12 Year Old Me: Yeah. Whatever. It's stupid.
Me: So you've told me. Can you, I don't know, construct a valid argument here? After all, it was your reaction to this film that keeps me from revisiting it for years. It was your reaction that convinced me I hated this film all throughout high school and college and into my adult life and now that I'm looking back, I have no idea why. Was it because it's a musical? Because I like musicals now. Is it because you saw it in a classroom filled with wisecracking little jerks who did everything in their power to keep you from enjoying it? Maybe you were enjoying it but you didn't want to act like it because you thought it would make you look stupid in front of your peers.
12 Year Old Me: Dude-
Me: Shut up, I'm on a roll here. Remember how we thought Teen Wolf was a good movie for an embarrassing amount of time? Remember that?
12 Year Old Me: Teen Wolf is awesome!
Me: No. No it's not. It's a terrible film that some people still like due entirely to nostalgia. They're wrong. It's not a good film. What if that concept works both ways? In the same way that many people have clung to their childhood favorites because they treasure their memories, what if I've carried this hatred of 'The Sound of Music' for so long not because it's a bad film, but because it's case of reverse-nostalgia? All people are inherently stubborn and we don't like changing our minds, especially when it comes to movies and especially when we've spent years bashing a film even though we don't have a leg to stand on. Well, you know what, young me? I'm ready to admit that I'm wrong. I'm ready to throw aside my childhood baggage and watch 'The Sound of Music' and I'm fully prepared to love it.
12 Year Old Me: You're stupid. And you're old.
Me: Get back in that time vortex and leave me alone forever, please. Vamanos and good riddance!
Post-Viewing Reaction: Can it go without saying that 'The Sound of Music' is a great film? Now that I've watched it, I can say without hesitation that it's a wonderful movie, but I'm not so sure if that can actually go without saying. It's definitely a famous film, a film that everyone knows about. I dare you to find a single person who can't recite the chorus of the titular opening number or describe the image of Julie Andrews twirling about on a mountain. However, whenever I told someone that I was going to be writing about this film, whether they be family or friends or random people on the street, I received a similar reaction: "Oh, neat. What's that actually about?"
There's the sad truth. How many people under the age of 40 have actually sat down and watched all 175 minutes of 'The Sound of Music'? I thought I was in the minority, but I'm starting to get the impression that I'm part of a generation that knows the imagery and knows the songs but hasn't seen the film and doesn't intend to correct that anytime soon. You heard it from 12 Year Old Me: Apparently, 'The Sound of Music' is a boring musical about annoying kids and Nazis.
Perhaps one of the flaws with 'The Sound of Music' is its meandering story that's content to bask in the moment instead actually going somewhere. The on-the-run-from-the-Nazis aspect of the story, the major images that seared themselves into my young, stupid brain, don't come into play until the third of the film's three hours. Up until that point, we've seen wannabe-nun Maria (Julie Andrews) sent to the Von Trapp home to act as governess to seven unruly children, who live a life of military precision under their father (Christopher Plummer), whose reaction to his wife's death some years prior was to transform into something of a giant douchebag. We've seen Maria win the children over by teaching them the joys song, transforming them into an all singing, all slightly choreographed performance troupe. We've seen Captain Von Trapp learn to love life again and slowly fall in love with Maria. Their big romantic scene, followed by a ludicrously extravagant wedding, feels like the climax to any other movie. Then, and only then, do things take a radical left turn and Nazis enter the picture.
That's why it's difficult to tell someone what 'The Sound of Music' is actually about. It's a movie with a lot on its plate and it's by no means a uniform meal. "The Austrian Partridge Family (or Brady Bunch, if you prefer) spend two hours singing songs around their massive villa before fleeing the Nazis" is not the kind of pitch that gets you the big bucks or wins over new viewers.
I decided to consult my friend Katie, who's the closest thing to a 'Sound of Music' expert that I know. It's her favorite film and she's seen it dozens of times and if anyone was going to help me unravel the core of this movie, it was her. Naturally, I asked her the question that so many others had asked me over the past week: "What the hell is 'The Sound of Music' actually about?" We came to this (paraphrased) conclusion:
"'The Sound of Music' is about people who need each other finding each other and forming a family unit that is strong enough to weather even the harshest of storms."
And like that, the awkward and slightly meandering structure of 'The Sound of Music' clicks into place for me. The two distinct halves of the movie, the half with all the singing and happiness and the half with the Nazis and the fleeing, work in perfect conjunction with each other. This is not a movie about a happy family being forced from their home. In fact, all of the Von Trapps know that fleeing to Switzerland is the right thing to do and no one raises a single protest. The first half of the movie is about a family learning to trust each other and learning to work together and trust one another. The second half of the movie puts these newly strengthened bonds to the test.
What I find most impressive is how joyful 'The Sound of Music' is, how completely free of cynicism and snark it truly is. Musicals aren't exactly hip right now, so most modern attempts in the genre attempt to subvert it rather than embrace it. In the case of 'Chicago,' a film that I actually quite like, there's the choice to make all of the song and dance numbers fantasies and that the characters are having, as if the film is embarrassed to let its characters actually break into song. What about 'Sweeney Todd' and 'Assassins,' two Stephen Sondheim musicals that I love with every fiber of my being? Both are masterpieces (well, maybe not the Tim Burton adaptation of 'Sweeney Todd), but surely their popularity, possibly even their very existence, endures because you don't expect to see a musical about serial killers or presidential assassinations. In an odd way, it's the old fashioned and traditional 'The Sound of Music' that feels fresh right now. It doesn't have those forty years of disappointment and thinly veiled anger that informs so much of our modern culture. It's an antique, but a perfectly preserved one, still operating at peak performance.
Do you know what does go without saying?
That Julie Andrews was a gift to the screen, a gorgeous, funny and charismatic actress with a voice built for musicals.
That Christopher Plummer, who my generation know as an awesome token-old-guy, was one helluva actor when he was a younger man...and an attractive man to boot! Er, or so I'm told.
That all of the songs are wonderful and memorable, even to the point where just about everyone knows them even if they don't know where they came from. Mine and Katie's personal favorite? The deliriously cheery 'I Have Confidence.'
Do you know what needs to be said more often?
That Robert Wise deserves more credit for being one of the most versatile directors who ever lived. This man directed 'The Sound of Music,' 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' 'West Side Story,' 'The Haunting' and 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' among many, many others. He dabbled and excelled in all genres, won four Oscars and directed some of the most iconic films of all time, yet he's never mentioned in the same breath as many directors, existing in a dead space between the Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder set of the 1950s and the Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola set of the 1970s. His work may not feel innovative like the former or personal like the latter, but it's consistently professional and often incredible. In the case of 'The Sound of Music,' Wise allows the film to be BIG, shooting in 70mm in actual European locations. Most musicals, even the best of them, feel stage-bound. Everyone is obviously on a set, the camera is locked down and you're watching the equivalent of a stage performance. By expanding the scope, by staging musical numbers on beautiful hillsides and bustling city streets and even on bicycles, 'The Sound of Music' takes on an epic grandeur that more than justifies its mammoth running time. At the time, this became the highest grossing film of all time (it was eventually toppled by 'The Godfather') and it's easy to see why: television may have been stealing people away from the cinemas, but TV was incapable of creating spectacle quite like this.
After nailing down what 'The Sound of Music' was actually about, Katie and I discussed our favorite moments from the film. The scene in the gazebo between Maria and Captain Von Trapp. The Baroness saying "Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun." The entire 'Do Re Mi' number. I ask her why it's her favorite movie, why it has connected with her and presumably, so many other people. She tells me how when she was younger, there was tension in her family and she lived every day afraid that her parents would split up. 'The Sound of Music' offered a refuge. Here's a beautiful story of a perfect love between two people who desperately need each other and only find each other after failing to find solace elsewhere (she in the abbey and he through running his home with military precision). Here's also the story of a family so full of love and joy that they break into friggin' song on a regular basis. To a young girl who's afraid that her family, and the love between her parents, is about to shatter into pieces, 'The Sound of Music' was the perfect antidote.
But we don't have to be a young girl to fall in love with 'The Sound of Music.' To paraphrase the great Jack Donaghy, all you need is two ears and a heart. Of course, Jack was referring to his love of Phil Collins, but that's beside the point. 12 Year Old Me certainly didn't know what I know now: we all spend our lives searching for love, frequently stumbling into the wrong places, thinking we know what we want when we probably don't. 'The Sound of Music' is about finding that right place, finding that right person, finding that right love and standing on a hilltop and letting the whole world know.
But please, if you do actually choose to do that, internalize it. That's a metaphor and not all of you can sing like Julie Andrews.
Next Week's Column:
Last week, you folks voted overwhelmingly for me to take a look at 'Moulin Rouge!', so it looks like I'll be doing two musicals in a row. However, voting is open for the week after that! From the selection below, cast your vote for what I should watch next in the comments below.
'The Bicycle Thief'
'The 39 Steps'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'