The Sound of Music was a favorite in my house. My little sister was kind of obsessed with it so I must have watched it four or five times in its entirety before the age of 10 or so, but I hadn’t revisited it since those early years until yesterday. I knew I wanted to have some revisits in this musical month and fond memories coupled with finding a Blu-Ray copy of it for pretty cheap to make for a perfect preamble to the viewing experience. As I sat down to watch the film I warned my roommmate that I’d probably at least hum along to most of the songs and he scoffed at me. It’s not like I break out into show tunes at the drop of a hat or anything, so I guess I don’t project that I’ve had these songs locked up in my head for the last fifteen years. Well, I was right, not only did I remember most of the melodies for things like “Maria” and “The Lonely Goatherd,” I also remembered (and sang) many of the lyrics to “I Have Confidence” and “Do-Re-Mi” and “My Favorite Things”. I guess this probably isn’t a huge revelation – music will stick with you longer than most things – but it wasn’t surprise that I felt at my remembered abilities, it was joy at finding an old friend better than I had left it.
Let’s start at the very beginning. The opening scene has Julie Andrews as Maria enjoying a sunny afternoon on the top of a mountain in the Austrian Alps. She sings the title song and basically just radiates joy. Throughout the course of the film, Andrews brought to mind light words. Radiant, incandescent, brilliant, luminous. “The Sound of Music” goes a long way towards defining the character as a dreamer who has trouble telling which way to go and what to do when she gets there. The next song, “Maria,” again defines her in contrast with the strict nunnery she begins the film in. There she is called a flibberty-gibbit and a cloud. Then, after she is sent out into the world we have the third and final defining song, and maybe the best in the lot: “I Have Confidence.” I mean, just how great can a thing be? Andrews starts slow and unsure but becomes convinced by her own words that she has the confidence to go into a scary situation and leave the comfort of the abbey. It’s like a song made specifically for college graduates who have no idea what they’re doing. Or, maybe that’s just how this college graduate saw it. Not only is it a great song, the visuals also seem to push her towards her destiny. Director Robert Wise is smart to employ an increasingly kinetic camera throughout this song as Maria builds her steam and begins to run towards the giant house she’ll be occupying for the rest of the film. It ends with a side tracking shot as Maria runs past the fountain in the driveway and trips for all of her enthusiasm, but picks up where she left off and goes even faster up to the door. Talk about a character introduction. Andrews is consistently amazing here, playing each emotional note with pitch perfect clarity. Just watch her, you’ll see one of the best performances of all time as she deals with a distant employer, stubborn kids, and begins to warm them through the power of her own joy. I keep trying to pick out which song is her song. Is it “Do-Re-Mi” and it’s impressive optimism mixed with a brilliant music lesson? Or maybe it’s “My Favorite Things,” which might be one of the biggest reasons why I’ve always liked stormy nights. Maria melts the heart of the cold Captain von Trapp in the middle and it’s almost a foregone conclusion. Is there anybody who could resist her charms?
It’s not just Maria, though, that makes this movie so great. All of those previous viewings I had of the film were on VHS with it’s horrible pan-and-scan presentation. Only this time did I see the wonderful widescreen glory of the locations and framing of scenes like the performance at the Folk Festival at the end of the film. There the darkness is oppressive as the Nazi threat looms large and the von Trapps seem only safe in the bright spotlight on stage. It’s the opposite of the comforting darkness of the Abbey. There, Maria has few options but it’s also less dangerous. The majesty of the von Trapp house and the surrounding lands were felt over and over again throughout this viewing of the film. It’s an excellent demonstration of just how breathtaking those old Hollywood gigantic productions could be.
It’s not a perfect film, of course. The second half, after the intermission, gets a little long in the tooth, though I like the mounting menace the Nazi flags everywhere symbolize. The second half also kind of rests on its laurels as it is content to reprise most of the songs from the first half, remixing them to be slower and more melancholic and throwing in different performers for some variety. It works, actually, quite well, but I might have enjoyed one or two more new songs rather than those reprises (the second version of “My Favorite Things” also has the best part of the whole movie in it). And as generally good as Christopher Plummer is, here he can’t hold much of a candle to Julie Andrews. He should be Atticus Finch-like in his dedication to his country and is family and instead he comes off as kind of disinterested. Every once in a while he has a winning moment, but they’re too few and far between. These are mostly nitpicks. After the first half I was ready to put The Sound of Music in my top 10 of all time. Once the whole film was finished it probably lands just outside of that list. Only just, though, as the brilliance of Julie Andrews and Wise go a very very long way towards making a truly great film, and the fantastic cast of kids push it up into to that rarefied air. “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” indeed.