Friday, December 16, 2011

The Sound of Music

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 40
Year: 1965
Writer: Ernest Lehmen (adaptation), Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II (music), Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse (book and libretto), Maria von Trapp (autobiography)
Director: Robert Wise
Star: Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Eleanor Parker

“The Sound of Music” is not the type of movie you can approach with cynicism, and since we currently live in an age of cynics, that’s difficult. If you sit down with the film expecting to want to punch the children in their smiling faces and root for the Nazis to find them, then that’s what you’ll feel. I sat down with a (relatively) open mind and found that within a half hour the movie had me under its spell.

I think it all comes down to how easy it is to fall in love with Julie Andrews. She plays nun-in-training Maria in Austria, who is sent to be a governess to seven rambunctious children who have recently lost their mother. She arrives at the huge (huge!) estate to find the children’s father Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) has become so withdrawn from grief that he runs the household and children like he runs the ships he captains in the navy. Of course, Maria breaks through to the children and falls for the father. Plus…Nazis!

The opening number, where Maria spins on a hill singing, has been parodied so many times that it’s lost much of its power, and the fact that she walks through a random stream she finds at the top of the hill that we know wasn’t there a second ago in the helicopter shots can bring on the chuckles. So can the second scene, where nuns complain about Maria by singing about how she sings in the Abbey (uh, hypocrite alert). But then Maria has a fun number called “Confidence” which is basically her just running toward her destiny, and I found myself starting to be won over.

The moment I just gave in and realized I sorta loved the movie is about the 40 minute mark, when Maria kneels down to pray on her first night in the von Trapp house. Andrews exudes charisma and humor here, and I accepted the movie on its own terms. It’s corny but utterly unapologetic about it – and that’s why it works. If any of the characters stopped and winked at the audience for even a moment, it would implode. But they don’t. Not even Plummer.

The plot is well-structured and the emotional arcs of the major characters resonate. I expected nothing less from screenwriter Ernest Lehmen in his adaptation. He’s got four movies (this, “North by Northwest,” “West Side Story” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) in the AFI Top 100 (sure, I loathed “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, but I’m trying to make a point here!), and wrote three others that easily could have been (“Sabrina,” “The King and I” and “Sweet Smell of Success”). He’s a master of structure (“North By Northwest”), creating appealing characters (“Sabrina”), and adapting near-impossible works (“West Side Story”). This guy is one of the greats in the industry and you can’t really call yourself a screenwriter unless you’ve read one or more of his scripts.

Sure, this is a three hour movie. There’s going to be some fat that could have been trimmed (how many times can you reprise a song?), and there are some character beats that feel false or are missing. For example, aside from the eldest daughter, we don’t get to know any of the children in any real way. Also, I highly doubt that the Mother Superior would recommend that Maria return to break up a happy couple and then sing a showstopper about it. And yet, when it works, it works beautifully. Lehmen does such a good job developing most of the characters (aside from those six pesky kids, but who’s counting?), that he pulls off a major tonal shift to suspense for the climax without altering the fabric of the film itself.

Then there is the music. Aside from “The Wizard of Oz,” has there ever been a movie whose music has so permeated our collective consciousness? I’d list the film’s standards, but then I’d be listing every song. Okay, I could deal without “The Lonely Goatherd,” and those damned puppets, but other than that there isn’t a clunker in the bunch. My personal favorite? “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” with a close second going to “Do-Re-Me.”

The songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein is, of course, rightfully legendary. Both did great work with other collaborators, but together something just clicked between them both in their music and the content of the shows they chose to score. “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “State Fair,” “Allegro,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “Cinderella,” “Flower Drum Song”…the films created that are based on these shows (save for “Allegro,” which has never been adapted) vary in quality, but it’s never because of the music that they falter.

The choreography throughout “The Sound of Music” is simple and elegant. Look at the way the gazebo is used in “Sixteen Going On Seventeen,” with the eldest daughter jumping from one bench to another in a circle to show her joy at first love. Understated works for the film—if the kids were dance prodigies as well as singing ones, I don’t think it would have worked.

But then again, much of “The Sound of Music” should not work in the slightest, but for some reason does. The youngsters would drive me to insert Twizzlers in my ears in another movie. If Maria were played by anyone other than Julie Andrews I would strangle myself. And so on and so forth. But it really did manage to break through and emotionally involve me in its story and characters, which surprised me.

I suppose it’s easier to poke fun at the twirling and the nuns and the guitar case, but if you can set your skepticism aside, you might discover that this is a really good movie after all.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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