Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Sound Of Music Is A Musical Anyone May Enjoy (Even Those Who Don't Like Musicals)!

The Good: Nice scenery, Funny, Good character development
The Bad: Direction, Somewhat predictable.
The Basics: A worthwhile Best Picture winner, The Sound Of Music tells a timeless tale of love, music and Nazi occupation set to a wonderful score.

It is amazing that for all of the movies I have watched, there are astonishing gaps in my cinematic education. As I sat down to watch The Sound Of Music for the first time - a somewhat astonishing feat given how many parodies I have seen and understood of the film - I realized two things. The first was that the film's director, Robert Wise, was best known to me for his film Star Trek: The Motion Picture (reviewed here!) and the second realization I had was that I've not seen Julie Andrews in anything save The Princess Diaries (reviewed here!). Yet, I approached The Sound Of Music with a fairly level temperament and few expectations.

Thus, it was a true delight to discover how much I came to enjoy The Sound Of Music. In terms of storytelling and character development, The Sound Of Music is remarkably tight and well-developed. Amidst the instantly-recognizable songs, the story develops as a fairy tale of sorts set in the 1930s as the Germans exert more influence over Austria. In addition to a very classic sense of storytelling - man falls for woman, villain pops up to challenge the lifestyle of the heroes - The Sound Of Music features an optimistic view of the world amidst changing times when innocence was hard to come by. The Sound Of Music is almost deceptive in its apparent simplicity and the true complexity of it only comes out in the later half . . . when the wartime story intrudes upon the love story.

Maria is a nun who has a musical obsession and a true delight in life. However, this leads her to be somewhat reckless and not truly fit in with the other nuns. She is given leave from the abbey to become the governess for the Von Trap family in Salzburg, Austria. There, she discovers five girls and two boys who need her guidance in the wake of their mother's death. The children of a sea captain, the children have lived a rigid life without his attention or affection. After gently chiding them for playing a prank on her, Maria begins to bond with the children by refusing to treat them like animals. Despite their various ages and needs, Maria makes the children feel loved by paying attention to them and offering them opportunities outside the rigid structure their father, including making them clothes from the curtains when the Captain refuses to get her fabric.

As the Captain and the Baronness work on their relationship, the Baronness becomes catty and eliminates Maria's position in the house when she suspects the Captain may have feelings for Maria. Maria leaves the household, but soon returns when the children are inconsolable without her. Soon after, the Nazis move in on Austria and the Von Trapp family is put into real peril.

The Sound Of Music is delightfully colorful and energetic, with wonderful color contrasts for the scenery that instantly transport the viewer to an enchanting world where it seems perfectly natural that the characters would break into song at any moment. And yet, the movie does not live in denial of the music that the characters break into. Captain Von Trap is characterized as a man so broken by the loss of his wife that he has lost music and the house has fallen quiet as a result. Maria, then, is the ideal character to come and rejuvenate the household and she fills exactly that role.

Despite the sense of simplicity that much of the film has, the characters actually develop and there is a decent sense of tension, especially at the climactic moments. Despite using young actors (and actresses), the acting is homogeneously wonderful, despite the unreality of characters breaking into song at a moment's notice. While the movie focuses on Maria and the Captain, characters like Lisle and her German boyfriend have integral roles and the relatively minor character of Ralph ends up having an important role.

What are more disappointing are the stylistic problems with the film. The realistic lighting in the dance number that puts Lisle and Ralph in the gazebo is problematic. It is not until it is lit with lightning occasionally that the scene is easy or enjoyable to watch. Instead, director Robert Wise trades realism - which leaves characters' faces obscured - for style and the comfort of the viewer. Similarly, during the classic song "Doe A Deer," the viewer is treated to the backs of all of the kid's heads to focus on Maria. Despite the beautiful backdrop, the movie has stretches where it is awkward to watch because of how Wise frames or lights the film. This is worse than the usual conceits of inorganic movement that comes with making characters dance in musicals. The movie has that, too (the children rocking back and forth on their knees in "Doe A Deer" comes instantly to mind), but the basic filming problems are worse in The Sound Of Music than the musical conceits.

On DVD, elements like obvious bluescreen shots are accented. Ironically, in cleaning up the print for DVD, shots like the background when the Captain is driving the Baroness back to his property look terrible.

Even the Captain has a decent character to him. He has moments when he is actually wit, like when he excuses himself from the company of Max and the Baroness and urges Max to step out of character and be charming. Despite his rigidity, the Captain has a sense of irony to him which is both refreshing and real. He is hardly monolithic and while he is stern, he clearly loves his children, he just does not know how to manage them (I suspect if I had ever been saddled with children, I would have ended up treating them like the Captain treats his . . . well, maybe without the whistle).

On DVD, the bonus features are surprisingly sparse. There is an audio commentary track and the option to play the film with the isolated score (without dialogue). This is remarkably lackluster DVD bonus features for such an acknowledged great film. No doubt as the film becomes re-released on Blu-Ray there shall be more robust DVD bonus features.

Unsuspecting as I was that I could enjoy The Sound Of Music, this becomes one of the few musicals I would ever want to see again (and not just for the flirtatious rendition of "Sixteen Going On Seventeen"). The movie is fun and a worthy addition to the cultural collective unconscious that great films have created.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, here! Please check it out!]

For other musicals, please check out my reviews of:
Repo! The Genetic Opera
The Runaways
Corpse Bride


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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