December 30, 2010
The Sound of Music (1965) ****1/2
Directed by Robert Wise
The Sound of Music (1965)- How do you solve a problem like a sugar sweet screenplay? Fantastic direction and amazing music. ****1/2 of 5
You may not know this by reading my blog, but I'm actually quite the movie musical aficionado. If you scroll through the films for which I've written reviews, you won't find too many classic musicals like Oliver!, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, West Side Story, Cabaret, Grease, The Pajama Game, Oklahoma, South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I and Annie among others. Yet, I'm well versed in all of them, and, as a matter of fact, if you were to play any song from any of the above mentioned musicals, I'd probably know every single word without any assistance at all. I was gifted with a good singing voice, so as a child who thrived on the acceptance and praise of others, I fell in love with everything Broadway, auditioning for every musical in my high school as well as the surrounding community theaters in my area. I started this blog in 2008, and I've only written reviews for the films I've watched since then. Therefore, the films I was obsessed with as a child are not to be found anywhere on the site.
The Sound of Music is one of the seminal films of my early life. Not only did I watch it over and over probably starting around the age of 9 or 10, but I owned the soundtrack on CD. I auditioned for it when I was 16, which made me too old to be one of the Von Trapp children, and a bit too young to play Rolfe, the whistle-blowing Nazi-in-training. Alas, it's been at least ten years, if not more, since I've seen the film, and it's amazing to me how much I didn't remember as clearly as I thought I would.
The side plots with the Baroness and the Nazis didn't register to me that strongly as a kid. The Baroness, played by three time Oscar nominee Eleanor Parker, is quite the rancid villain, taking advantage of the admittedly hokey naivety of Maria, the postulant nun assigned to be the governess of the seven children of Austrian Captain Von Trapp. In my vague recollection, before this revisit, I sort of remember that Maria and the Captain fall in love and that some other lady was disappointed about it. It's interesting what you recall from your childhood as an adult.
The political subplot concerning the Nazi takeover of Austria didn't really register to me in any specific way back then either. I remember that they had to escape from the Nazis and that Rolfe blew the whistle, but I wasn't clear as to why the Nazis were chasing the Von Trapps in the first place. Now, of course, it's very easy to understand that the Captain is an Austrian nationalist who reviled the Nazis, and, upon being ordered to serve in the Third Reich, he decides to take his family and cross the border into neutral Switzerland rather than support Hitler's cause.
Ultimately, though, it's not the love triangle or the escape from the Nazis that draws people into what was once the most financially successful film of all time. It's the singing and the dancing, of course. Rogers and Hammerstein composed what I believe is their best score when they wrote The Sound of Music for Broadway audiences in 1959. Granted, songs like Do-Re-Mi, So Long Farewell and My Favorite Things can become grating, especially when they've been sung to death as they have ever since 1959, but they're as timeless as the most classic children's songs like Twinkle, Twinkle and Mary Had a Little Lamb. The simple ballad Edelweiss is one of the purest tunes in Broadway history, as is the title song The Sound of Music. Even the lesser numbers like How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, I Have Confidence, Sixteen Going on Seventeen and Something Good are so charming that the viewer can't help but be lifted into a world of innocence and idealism.
Yet, the moment that really affected me the most with this viewing was Peggy Wood's arresting performance of Climb Every Mountain. Granted, Wood's singing was dubbed, but it was dubbed beautifully. Even with some of the most iconic sequences in all cinema within this picture, I think it's the exchange between Wood's Mother Superior and Julie Andrews' Maria that is the emotional and narrative high point of the entire film. So much of the first act with the nuns and the children almost begs to be resisted because of its sugary, almost cloying, sweetness, but when Maria returns to the abbey once she realizes that Von Trapp is in love with her and has a sit down spiritual direction session with the Mother Superior, it's almost as if Ernest Lehman's script matures completely in one single sequence.
Clearly, Maria is going through a deep existential and religious crisis, and the Mother Superior gives her advice that's totally believable and quite profound. She emphasizes that there's holiness in the love between a man and a woman. Maria leaving the convent is not a sign that she's turning her back on a vocation to God. At one point, she says that loving Captain Von Trapp does not mean that she loves God any less. In a world where religious men and women are often painted with such cynical strokes, it's refreshing to see one who is charitable and wise, embodying the sort of person that would please God. When Mother Superior starts singing Climb Every Mountain, there's a richness to her character that's cultivated perfectly, despite a limited amount of screen time. On its own, Climb Every Mountain might come off like a musical inspirational poster with a kitten in a basket sleeping next to a ball of yarn, but because of the preceding conversation, it grounds itself in truth and ends up one of the great stirring moments in all film.
Unfortunately, though, despite my eternal undying affection for The Sound of Music, I don't think it's among the very best movie musicals ever made. There are too many ways in which it could have been an even better film. First of all, the actors who play the children are pretty terrible all around. I have little patience for unbearably bad acting even by children on screen. We've seen over and over and over again the fact that some children are capable of giving performances that are good enough to be nominated for Oscars. Watch Tatum O'Neill in Paper Moon or Hayley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense or Justin Henry in Kramer vs. Kramer or Henry Gibson in E.T. or Jack Wild in Oliver! or Anna Paquin in The Piano. I could literally go on and on. It's simply not acceptable to cast child roles solely based on the way children look. Most of the kids that were cast had literally no film acting experience before The Sound of Music. I don't blame the kids, by the way. I blame Robert Wise for allowing mediocrity to infect such a meticulously crafted film.
Christopher Plummer, God love him, has said over and over again how much he despises The Sound of Music, often referring to it as The Sound of Mucus or S & M. He was miserable during the filming, finding the whole thing tedious and corny. Sadly, his contempt shows through quite clearly in his unbelievably stiff performance as Captain Von Trapp. He's so uptight that, when he goes through a transformation upon first hearing his children sing, it looks more like he's just gone through an exorcism. His light demeanor is in such stark contrast to the nastiness we've seen previously. The second half of the film belongs primarily to the Captain as he forges a plan to escape before he's commissioned to join the Third Reich. He never once has the fire that you'd imagine a man in his situation would have in any aspect of his performance. Further, his chemistry with Andrews is almost non-existent.
Both of these problems, ironically, highlight the astounding greatness of Julie Andrews as Maria. Considering that, for most of the movie, she's asked to act opposite these dreadful child actors or the icy Christopher Plummer, it's wondrous how she's so good in every moment. A lesser actress might have either been brought down by those around her or disconnected with everyone else as if she were in a one woman show. Andrews is so charming to watch when she's with the children, and despite the lack of reciprocity, she glows in her moments with Plummer. Trained in opera and on the Broadway stage, Andrews makes the most of every moment on screen. She's playing to the back of the auditorium, but she does so in a way that's cinematic. The grand scope with which Wise directs demands performances that match. Andrews is not only up for the task, but she gives The Sound of Music its lifeblood. By the time the film was released to the public, Mary Poppins had been a huge hit, giving Andrews her Oscar. It's pretty incredible to think she was cast as Maria before Mary Poppins was even released in theaters. They hired a relative unknown, which is a gamble that paid dividends for sure.
Despite his myopic ability with children, Robert Wise's direction provides The Sound of Music with its grandiosity and its richness. I'm sure it's difficult to adapt a stage musical to the big screen, to shift one's paradigm from the confines of a stage to the endless potential of sound stages and real life locations. The aerial shots of the mountains at the beginning and end are astonishingly beautiful, and it's fascinating how similar the opening of The Sound of Music is to Wise's true musical masterpiece West Side Story. Even the way Wise shoots the Von Trapp mansion, the waltzing at the party, the children frolicking through Salzberg, the abbey, the Austrian concert and the wedding sequence transforms material originally meant to be limited to the size of a stage into such bombastic visual grandeur. Yet, there's a sophistication to every scene that gives a hokey screenplay heft and acclaim.
The Sound of Music won me over when I was a kid, and it won me over as a thirty year old just as well. Sure, we're wading knee deep in some pretty thick syrup here, but the overall effect is one hundred percent palatable. As a matter of fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Wise and Andrews provide generation after generation with quite a feast; however, after this main course, I doubt you'll want to even think about dessert.