Somehow, I’d never seen this before. Of course, I knew most of the songs and was familiar with the classic moments from this Best Picture winner for 1966 which once was the highest grossing picture ever made. Yet I’d never actually sat down to watch. Until now, as I’ve spent nearly five hours perusing through the “Five Star Collection” DVD. I’ll get to the extras later, but what’s most important, naturally, is the movie itself. And what a wonderful movie it is ! It’s kind of a surprise how fun this one is, considering that it’s nearly three hours long and it revolves around a houseful of Austrian children. Not to be close-minded, but I guess this is why it took me so long to get around to see this. It looks so dull and, well, gay! What did me in, though, is the more or less recent revelation I had that musicals could be soooooo entertaining! I’d seen some of the staples of the genre through the years, but didn’t think too much of it, even though I loved most of them. But this year, with the release of two new musicals (“Moulin Rouge!” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) which are pretty much my favorites of 2001 so far, I’m getting to accept that I really, really dig musicals! Maybe I *am* gay (maybe not). Anyways, here I am finally, ready to review “The Sound of Music”!
The film opens with impressive helicopter shots of some gorgeous Austrian scenery. And then we swoon down on the equally gorgeous Julie Andrews as she sings out, “The hills are alive with the sound of music. With songs they have sung for a thousand years.” What a perfect, iconic opening. Even though, for late comers like me, you can’t help but think of Ewan McGregor’s take on it from “Moulin Rouge!”. Oh well. Andrews eventually gets off the hills and goes back to the Abbey. Her character Maria is, as it turns out, a nun. She doesn’t really fit in ; she loves God and all, but she also loves dancing and singing and being funny, not so much dwelling in contemplation and reverence. Fortunately, her mother Abbess sends her off on an assignment in the world. She is to take care of the seven children of Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), a navy officer who lost his wife to scarlet fever. He didn’t take it really well, as Maria will notice shortly. He runs his household like a military regiment, letting his children do nothing but march and learn discipline.
Obviously, Maria’s arrival will change everything, bringing joy and happiness to the kids with the sound of music, and maybe she’ll show the old captain how to love again. The end. Pretty predictable, eh ? Not so much, in fact. Yes, most of the movie is upbeat and musical, with the whole family even performing in parties and festivals as the Trapp Family Singers, but some complications ensue. First, there’s the shenanigans of the Baroness (what is this, GI Joe?!), a storybook evil stepmom who tries to wedge herself between Maria and the von Trapp. Second, and most upsetting, is the introduction of the Nazis. At the beginning, when a title card announced that this was set in 1930s Austria, it sounded like bad news to me, but it was still kind of shocking to see, after scenes with kids falling off rowboats, bright skies and blissful songs, to have men in uniforms march in and go “Heil Hitler”. Hence, the third act is marked by the birth of the third Reich and the invasion of Austria by the Germans, and the film becomes more tense and dramatic. While this remains a feel-good movie which doesn’t get down and dirty into World War II issues, you could compare the tone of some of it to that of “Casablanca”. I didn’t expect this, but I appreciated it. It cancelled any impression I might have had that this was a frivolous affair. This was further confirmed when, in exploring the extras, I learned that the movie is quite closely based on the real life of the von Trapp family.
Yet let’s not get too sombre now! This is “The Sound of Music” after all, not “Sophie’s Choice”. From fact to film, the story had to be laid down in a book by Maria von Trapp , then adapted as the 1956 German film “Die Trapp Familie”, which inspired famed composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to create a Broadway musical out if, which was then the base for the movie, which was written by Ernest Lehman and directed by Robert Wise, who’d previously worked together on “West Side Story”. The movie assembles a great cast, from the talented children to the radiant Andrews and the edgy, interesting Plummer. Wise’s direction is both playful and gracious, and the movie hardly ever loses its grip on the audience. I stated earlier that the 174 minute running time worried me, but this wasn’t an issue, the movie just flew by.
For all of its qualities, the greatest thing about the movie is the Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Besides the classic title track, well known ditties include “Do Re Mi” (you know, “doe, a deer, a female deer.”), as well as “My Favorite Things” and “So Long Farewell”, a pair of catchy little numbers which were used to affecting effect in Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”, in which Björk and others participate in an amateur production of “The Sound of Music”. Plummer also gets to croon the nice “Edelweiss” and Charmian Carr, who plays Liesl, the oldest daughter, duets with a young man on “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, which has some kind of naughty subtext. All those memorable tunes, paired with the surprisingly strong script and direction, explain how “The Sound of Music” has endured as a timeless crowd-pleaser.
And now, with the DVD, which gives you much bang for your buck. On Disc One, besides a great transfer of the film in Anamorphic Widescreen and Dolby Surround, there’s a running commentary by Robert Wise which I didn’t really listen to. It’s one of those tracks where the speaker doesn’t say much, taking long pauses. Much more rewarding the supplements-filled Disc Two. On it, you’ll found tons of storyboards, audio bits, interviews, original trailers and TV spots. There’s also two documentaries. One is an hilariously dated and naïve behind the scenes featurette / Salzburg travelogue narrated by Carr, but the other is a comprehensive, feature length doc. It’s informative and interesting, as we get to learn a lot about the real von Trapp family, the Broadway play and the production of the film through tons of interviews from various involved parties.