Sunday, May 11, 2014


After perusing through a stack of past reviews, I got the sense that in some smaller critical corners it was quite the fashion to lower one’s knickers and dump all over The Sound of Music. Why? What are the charges, you may be asking yourself? Well, they can quite summarily be articulated for reasons of being overly saccharine and sentimental; merrily out of touch with the reality going on around it. Of course the critics who jaw on about The Sound of Music being too cheerful and such have clearly found themselves on the wrong side of history and can go soak their heads. (Legend has it that her negative review led to Pauline Kael’s dismal from McCall’s magazine). It seems pointless to come to the defense of this excellent film, as it is obviously capable of standing on its own two feet. But I feel I must at least answer the charges that this film stands as an example of maudlin movie making. What rubbish. First of all, it’s a musical, which is a genre that traditionally comes coated in extra emotion, whether dower or delightful. If you want depressing drama, go rent Sophie’s Choice. To my next point, I pose the question: What is so wrong with a film that emanates sunshine, anyway? Where does the inherent atrocity lay in presenting a story that is uplifting, however sweet? Look, I’m not saying I fawn all over cinematic works that are served up with a dollop of sprinkles and a cherry on top. But I have no problem with them, as long as they own it. And The Sound of Music does. It is unquestionably authentic in its tone and demeanor. I declare the whole endeavor to be free from even a hint of irony. At its core, The Sound of Music espouses the idea that music can be a force of good in people’s lives; being a conduit that can deliver happiness, soften a hard heart and bring people together. Anyone who is at all culturally literate knows this about the reality of music, which makes it ridiculous to besmirch a musical that endeavors to highlight this truth. 

Directed by the keenly proficient Robert Wise, who previously sat in the director’s chair on West Side Story, and starring the unsinkable Julie Andrews and the stoic Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music created beautiful music to the tune of 10 Academy Award nominations. The film would ultimately waltz away with five wins, including everyone’s favorite thing: the Oscar for Best Picture in 1965. In terms of Oscar trivia, The Sound of Music was the first film since Hamlet to win Best Picture without receiving a nomination in the screenplay category. It would hold this distinction until 1997, when Titanic would relieve it of the dubious, albeit minor, honor. The smashing success couldn’t have come at a better time for 20th Century Fox, as The Sound of Music is credited with pulling back the studio from the brink of financial ruin after the loosed incurred by the absurdly over-produced Cleopatra. 

Anyone who has made even a tenuous effort to be culturally engaging throughout their life should be familiar with The Sound of Music’s plot. If not, then make a u-turn, find a copy of the film and get with the program. You won’t regret it. It’s sincerely one of those films that can be watched multiple times without going stale. However, it’s difficult to flesh out the underlying reason owing to the film’s watchability factor. But if there’s a gun to my head, I would probably fess up to it being the radiance of Julie Andrews’ performance. She’s like Michael Jordan, where she elevates the rest of the cast’s game, drawing out talent that they would otherwise not be capable of producing. Every musical number, every line of dialogue and every scene is better when she is singing it, saying it or acting in it. Julie Andrews is so effortless as Maria that I think it becomes easy to overlook the multiple elements that she has to knit together. The role is a cocktail of insecurity, precociousness, tenderness, comedy, romance and inner strength, among other traits, and Andrews threads each one seamlessly. On top of that, she carries the evolution of Maria in a subtle manner that by the film’s end she has morphed into a completely different being from who she was twirling around the Austrian Alps at the beginning. I know the performance is a beloved one, but I think in some ways it’s an underrated one. It’s a role that I think could have easily been turned into something more over the top, resembling caricature instead of a genuine person. The urge to go overboard instead of keeping it grounded must have been difficult to resist, but Andrews always moors Maria to the ground, no matter how silly the situation may be.

There is a degree of boldness to naming a film The Sound of Music because it implies that it is going to be a
film with good music. If it doesn’t deliver on its own inherent confidence, then it runs a grave risk of looking somewhat ridiculous. It’s like nicknaming yourself The Painter, and then not having any artistic skill. But The Sound of Music has every right to swagger in this department because the soundtrack is a hit parade of classics. There really isn’t a dud in the bunch, although I’ll admit that I do have a hard time sitting through the Reverend Mother’s rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain. It’s one of those rare musicals where every song is strong and executed with an irresistibly entertaining sense of panache that I almost prefer the musical numbers to the scenes of spoken dialogue. I think the strength of the musical numbers is reflected in the accompanying choreography, which is fairly simple and straightforward, leaving much of the heavy lifting to the music itself. The numbers aren’t choreographed with glitz and sex appeal like Chicago, nor do they possess a grandeur and elegance like Hello Dolly. They have a minimal, yet unforgettable style about them that is enduring because of the music.

For the sake of full disclosure, I have to confess that I have two a personal connections to The Sound of Music, causing it to forever reserve real estate within my heart. The first relates to my time as intern in Washington, DC many years ago with USA TODAY. I was busy wrapping up another internship with the New York Daily News when I got an offer from USA TODAY to come work for them for the remainder of the summer. Of course I said yes, but that left me scrambling to find a place to stay in a city that I didn't know and where I wasn't acquainted with a soul. Out of sheer desperation, I elected to rent a room from this couple. They were a quirky and unique pair, but nonetheless nice enough people to rent from for a two months. However, at night they ramped up the air conditioning and turned the whole house into a veritable meat locker. The first few nights, I was freezing my face off, but I avoided asking to borrow additional blankets from my landlords because I felt that it was probably best to limit my interactions with them.

But by the third night it had become too much. I was nodding off at work from the lack of sleep at home, due to the arctic atmosphere. So I sat up on the edge of my bed in an attempt to devise a solution. I remember looking over at the curtains on my windows, which were these gray, heavy, hideous deep corduroy shrines to bad taste. But as I sat there contemplating their repulsive nature, the song My Favorite Things began churning in my mind, inspiring me to take them down for blankets, in a move similar to Maria's sense of ingenuity of recycling her old drapes to make play clothes for the von Trapp children. I'm happy to report that night marked the end of chilly slumber.

My second connection to The Sound of Music is to the song Sixteen Going on Seventeen. It was my audition number when I tried out for a play in high school. I had never done any type of theater before, nor do I possess much of a singing voice. But I recall practicing the hell out of that song, singing it in the shower, in the car on the way to school and just about anywhere else that I might find myself alone. I’m not trying to convey false modesty by stating that singing was not my forte, nor was it something I had devoted much time and attention to. But the fact that I could pull it off and sing it well enough speaks to another quality about the songs in The Sound of Music: accessibility. Most of them are relatively easy for the masses to sing, giving them an everyday sort of appeal. I guess another way to say it is that they’re just a lot of fun, plain and simple. There is no way you’re not humming the puppet show song without it upturning the corners of your mouth.

However, the moment of the film that really made me smile are those bad-ass nuns at the end who rip off the engine parts of the Nazi’s automobiles so that they won’t function and the von Trapp’s can make their clean getaway. I remember as a kid always enjoying this tiny, but pivotal scene. I think, in large part, its appeal rested in the fact that no one, not even the Nazis, would suspect nuns to be capable of pulling off such a cheeky move. I love the fact that they exploited this underestimation of their nature to save the day and contribute to The Sound of Music being one damn happy film. (So there Pauline Kael!)

Favorite Line: When Maria first meets Captain von Trapp, I always thought this little exchange about Maria’s dress was amusing. 

Captain von Trapp: It's the dress. You'll have to put on another one before you meet the children.
Maria: But I don't have another one. When we entered the abbey our worldly clothes were given to the poor.
Captain von Trapp: What about this one?
Maria: The poor didn't want this one. 

Who are these poor people that they can afford to have such high-minded sartorial tastes?

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