February 18, 2011

#40: The Sound of Music

"The hills are alive with the sound of music..."

Mountains, mountains, nature, mountains, quaint towns, trees, mountains, OMG A NUN. This is how we begin... at the very beginning. (C'mon. You can't hardly talk about Robert Wise's 1965 mega-hit musical The Sound of Music without starting with that.) The film begins quietly, almost reverently, flying over the Austrian countryside and asking the audience to consider the natural beauty of the motherland. Isn't it nice? Well, we'll get to that.

Company: Alex, excellent movie-watching companion who has amazingly never done a stage production of The Sound of Music

Cuisine: Alex supplied many treats: Tostitos with southwestern dip (yum), strawberries, cheese & crackers and off-brand Oreos ... and we ordered Domino's for good measure. And drank Diet Coke. This is a long movie and we needed to replenish.

She has confidence in confidence alone.

We all know the story, don't we? Whether you cherish the film as a family tradition or just remember watching it on TV a lot as a kid as I do (which accounts for some shots/scenes being entirely new to me), you surely know that opening shot of Maria's bliss-induced pleasure spin on a mountain. To start, the film's main weapon is the iconic, classic and career-making star turn by Julie Andrews as Maria, a postulate who's maybe not quite cut out to be a nun since she has little to no self-control where nature sprints or singing are concerned. "I can't stop singing anywhere I am," says Maria. Luckily for her, this is a musical. The title number, sung before the credits roll, reminded me of what a pure, simple and yet masterful singing voice the Dame has/had. They don't make them like this anymore, folks. She's also an excellent lip-syncer, a skill that is seriously lost on most performers today.

It is "the last Golden Days of the Thirties" in Salzburg, and through some misguided holy wisdom, the Mother Abbess (Oscar nominee Peggy Wood, who didn't even do her own singing!) punishes Maria's lollygagging by sending her to preside as governess over the seven children of Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, also didn't do his own singing). The kids are jerks at first, but they grow, as we have all along, to love Maria. Even after she makes them all matching rompers out of shaggedy old curtains.

When the children warm to her, the movie finds focus. They gallop across Salzburg and the surrounding countryside, giggling and carrying picnic baskets. The oldest (Charmian Carr) harbors a crush on a handsome telegram boy, but otherwise puberty is nowhere to be found among any of the Von Trapps. This, along with their intense boredom and newfound freedom, is what leads Maria to teach them all to sing, which they pick up amazingly quickly.

Now I've done two productions of this show, at ages 10 and 12 (no, I was never one of the Von Trapps, thank you, why don't you give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice on it?!), and I guess I had never thought about the overall effectiveness of this show musically. It seems, though, that nearly every number is simply "nice" and never really reaches "greatness." Other Rodgers and Hammerstein classics (Carousel, South Pacific, maybe even Oklahoma, etc.) contain truly masterful songwriting (I think mostly of Carousel here, but I'm biased), but this musical doesn't have songs that come close. The title number, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" and "Do Re Mi" have little in the way of action or drive to them, and thus the film would feel like it slowed to a halt during the numbers if it weren't for Andrews and her all-bets-are-off central performance.

I'd argue that maybe "Edelweiss", sung in the above shot by the father to his children in a lovely moment, is the classiest number, although it serves in the show as just a pretty song (of course with nationalistic and melancholy undertones). "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" is sweet but saccharine, and "The Lonely Goatherd" is just a silly song without real purpose or place in the story's structure.

Now, am I just a humbug here? The stage musical, originally starring Mary Martin in 1959, was written in a time when the musical theater form had indeed moved past just pretty numbers and had progressed to include songs that advanced the storytelling, as is evidenced in many other R&H collaborations. But this musical just feels slight by comparison. The film adaptations of those other musicals, however, were never nearly as successful as this one was, which still stands as one of the biggest box-office films of all time. Why?

Well, look at what it has going for it: a legendary performance in Julie Andrews. A sweet (if not too sweet) true story. Gorgeous landscapes. Hummable songs. And, if I can be crass about it, a harmless story until about the last quarter when a universal enemy steps in. The wedding chimes have barely stopped ringing for Maria and the Captain and the Vasoline is still on the camera lens left over from "I Must Have Done Something Good" when the Nazis come knocking and threaten to ruin this perfect little family.

The above shot is one of my favorites in the film, as a dark parallel to the one before it, with the Von Trapps in dark shadow. Singing, playclothes and goat puppets can only distract this family from the Anschluss for so long before the Captain is summoned to Germany to take an office in the Third Reich's navy, and the third act commences. This last act is almost an entirely different film in tone, as the Von Trapps plan their escape and sing their last "So Long, Farewell" (during which Alex always gets a little weepy). With the help of some crafty sinning nuns, they make their way over the hills into neutral Switzerland. Everything ends happily... like it should in a musical!

Modern musical theatre, especially in the last twenty years or so, has come to a lot of parody, satire and self-reference, acknowledging that it's insane for people in a story to start singing out of nowhere accompanied by an invisible orchestra. But The Sound of Music represents a time when America was still enamored with the romance and beauty of the art form, before we all started rolling our eyes at it. But how incredible would it be to see a new musical filmed like this one? I don't know that it can be done, but maybe. Lift your eyes to the hills from whence commeth your help and maybe it'll happen.

This is all to say: I enjoy the film because it's nice. I don't think it's life-changing (besides maybe Julie) but it certainly strikes a major C chord with everyone who sees it, mostly because of how it's inoffensive enough to appeal to everyone. That's America for ya, baby.

Next up: talk about great central performances. Now we've got Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers and Peter Sellers.

1 comment:

  1. I was lucky enough to be living in Austria in 1965, when the movie was filmed. (My family lived there from 1963 to 1968.) Austria then (I don't know about now) was a fairyland, just as the movie portrays. The 1965 movie shows just how beautiful the world could have been, had we all pulled together in that direction. Unfortunately, as a species, we have chosen another course entirely. Ugliness, crowding, conflict. Why?