The Sound of Music (1965, Robert Wise)
As with West Side Story, not coincidentally a musical from (more or less) the same director and with in some ways the same syntax, replacing the alleyways of New York with the mountains of Austria, I must backtrack on nearly everything I’ve ever said about this film — as a child I loved it, as an adolescent I thought it nearly unbearable, and now I’m somewhere in between. But c’mon. Yes, there is padding and the movie is overlong (I’ve little doubt that the length makes sense on stage, but more should have been cut from the adaptation), and yes, there’s something about Julie Andrews that suggests, in this role, just a little too much control — her dignified manner never really lets her get lost in any of the numbers. But it’s hard to believe someone with a beating heart could fail to be won over by the midsection of the film, from roughly forty minutes in to the intermission. Before that, it’s all a very polite Cheaper by the Dozen, and after that, it gets bogged down in plottiness and bites off more story than it can digest, but in that key sequence of scenes, full of music and love and delight, it’s as vibrant as can be.
We must acknowledge somewhat the story that backgrounds the music, that of the real-life Von Trapp family and their escape from the spreading Nazi regime in Austria just before the war. We open in a nunnery with Andrews’ Maria running late and everyone hemming and hawing over her, and soon enough she’s looking after seven kids, then teaching them to sing, and offering herself up as a protector and confidante to unruly children in a household run by a distant father still fancying himself a playboy. Of course Maria and patriarch Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) fall in love and marry, and then flags unfurl and suspenseful episodes gradually lead to an escape. But it’s how that delightful straight line happens, how it gets wavered and ruffled just a bit by the wonderfully expressive songs, that makes The Sound of Music such a strong and warm experience.
The first real suggestion of magic is “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” which is only a mildly exceptional song, but is one of the film’s most dazzling and intimate setpieces, a dance between oldest daughter Liesl and local messenger slash secret Aryan boyfriend Rolfe that occurs during a thunderstorm in a gazebo and so lovingly captures adolescent romance that the mutual force between them threatens to overwhelm the noise outside, and the set seems to fly off into space along with all of us. I must admit this to being my favorite sequence of the film, the one that grapples my heart the most. But the best song here is “My Favorite Things,” a truly astonishing piece of music, and what’s impressive is that Rodgers & Hammerstein don’t do a whole lot with it — it’s brought out in a low-key sequence in Maria’s bedroom that indeed marks the point when Andrews’ performance truly clicks, when her compassion for the children — fearful during the storm — suddenly seems real rather than affected. Likewise, my own feeling is that “Do-Re-Mi” is mostly a silly, inconsequential tune, but Wise’s visualization is an expressive marriage of music to visuals, emphasizing the open-air ferocity of the melody with a surreal arms-outward exploration of Hohenwerfen Castle.
The turning point of the film is the melting of Georg Von Trapp’s heart when he hears his children singing for the first time in years, and suddenly realizes the lapse in fatherhood he’s committed — and we then first hear Plummer’s own golden voice, and so much is redeemed. At a party thereafter, the run of masterful song sequences ends with a bang, that of course being the lengthy marionettes scene, which is utterly inexplicable and entirely disconnected from both the narrative and the remainder of the film. It’s one of the most fun moments in a Hollywood picture, a simply flawless and convincingly childlike illustration of the wonders and education that mere play can produce. Its imperfect, sweet-natured humanity is a microcosm for the film’s sharp contrast to Lerner & Loewe’s concurrently popular works, and really any number of other famed musicals without such a core of kindness and familial love.
Since the story is awkward both in theory and execution, its emotional resonance — and it does manage some — has to be sold less through Wise’s spectacular direction (he’s not as distant as David Lean but he’s certainly not overflowing with passion) and Ernest Lehman’s rather ordinary script than through the performances themselves. After a rocky start, Andrews successfully transforms herself into the sort of redemptive figure that might save a child’s life, the children themselves being the film’s major target of empathy (the political story seems shoehorned), but it’s Plummer who breaks your heart, as we sense him rapidly falling in love with Maria and cannot help reading his vulnerabilities as a brightened, excitable reflection of what she generated in his children. It’s all ridiculous, of course; none of it really happened like this, and even if it did, the movie sets up von Trapp’s character too awkwardly for the turn to be fully believable and trustworthy — but it doesn’t matter, and this is where Wise comes in.
As in West Side Story, he knows how to work with shorthand, he knows how to generate iconography that means everything and it’s for this reason that we find ourselves invested in the central love story of The Sound of Music. He trusts that most of us are hopeless romantics, and we are, and his two impressive musicals of the ’60s are in a very real sense about the audience, about the things we want to believe in — in this case, a triumph of love over evil, in a manner just true enough to be resonant down through many decades and the many hundreds of hours we’ve spent watching this family ham their way through “So Long, Farewell.” Just real enough that many long for the release this movie depicts: how wonderful to believe that a solemn soul can break down, that a silent house can fill with song, that the stone face can crack. Is it sentimental to suggest that that’s a big reason we need movies?