Monday, December 14, 2015

AFI Top 100: #40 "The Sound of Music"

Julie Andrews as Maria in The Sound of Music (1965)

This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music, the #40 film on the AFI Top 100 list. It's also the second musical on the countdown to feature a "Nazi sneak attack sub-plot" (the first being Cabaret) that one of our loyal movie night attendees is, in her words, "totally over." I can't say that I blame her. It certainly does infringe on all that happy singing and dancing. Adapted from the Broadway musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein of the same name, the film tells the 'semi-true' story about the formation of the Von Trapp Family Singers and how a postulate nun named Maria would go on to transform the lives of the entire family.

Set in Austria in 1938 in the days before the Nazi-occupation of the country (known as the Anschluss), Maria (Julie Andrews), a restless woman studying to become a nun, is sent to be the governess to seven children of a strict naval officer and widower, Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). Witnessing the lack of music, joy, and merriment within the cold, sprawling estate, Maria teaches children Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta, and Gretl about music and play against the wishes of their father. Eventually, though, upon seeing how his children have transformed, Von Trapp also falls under Maria's spell, despite being engaged to be married to another woman. The family, including Maria, begin performing in public as a singing troupe, with the changing political climate ebbing in the background, threatening to destroy everything Von Trapp and Maria have fought so hard to preserve.

Everything about The Sound of Music threatens you with schmaltzy sentimentality, nothing more-so than Julie Andrews herself. Forget the songs, which come in a close second. Plummer was quoted once as saying that working with Andrews was like working with a Valentine's Day cardmore likely than not, kidding on the square. While on the surface, he may have found her positivity and joy insufferable, his feelings about her likely contributed to their palpable chemistry on screen.

Maria is a lot of smiles for one widower to handle, and Von Trapp isn't the only character that gives the flouncing, bubbly governess a bit of side-eye (more about Max and Elsa to come). But then parts sneak up on you. The passion and the chemistry exuding from Plummer infects the screen, and Andrews is vulnerable for the first time. Her voice is pure magic, and we're all swept away whether we wish to be or not. It's more than just a musical to sing-a-long tothough, we'd be foolish to ignore that as the primary reason it continues to bring us joy.

Ignore the liberties that the producers took with the Von Trapp story. The changes are so egregious that at a certain point, they become irrelevant. It's clear that 'truth' wasn't a priority, which allows for the story to come conveniently and seamlessly together in all the right ways. The characters, including the children, are easily distinguished from one another with unique personality traits, though sometimes those are their only qualities. There are a lot of them to keep track of, after all. Every song is fantastic, and when they come up, it's quite impossible not to sing along.

The film's fictional inventions are also, undoubtedly, the best characters. Max (Richard Haydn), the eccentric musical director who pushes the family to begin performing once he sees their talent, and Elsa (Eleanor Parker), the wealthy Baroness in a relationship with the Captain at the start of the film. Elsa could easily have been a woman villainized, but she delivers such a wonderfully relatable performance. She's the amount of bitchy we could all see ourselves being; or rather, hope we'd be. Never malicious, but observant and unwilling to compromise or be made a fool of. Parker plays the Baroness with poise, maturity, and lushy grace.

Director Robert Wise scaled back significantly on the prevalence of the political/Nazi story lines, but that entire facet of the film keeps us on constant alert. Nothing feels particularly dangerous, and that seems like the right choice, even though the Nazi menace comes off looking like a nuisance rather than a scourge on society. But Wise finds a balance that works, especially towards the end as the Von Trapps escape through the nunnery, and the periphery is littered with enough swastikas and Nazi-youth to leave you unsettled, even when our focus is on this sweet and precious love story.

The Sound of Music literally has something for everyone. On many levels, it could be considered a children's movie, with more than a few playful, Mary Poppins-like scenes to bring out the magic-loving kid in all of us. But underneath all of the matching drape-clothes and synchronized dancing numbers are rich layers that run deep with desire, conflict, and an ever-present sense of foreboding.

In many ways, I want not to love this movie. It feels trite to talk about how memorable the songs are, how emotional I get when Maria and Von Trapp finally realize they're in love, but I can't help it. I adore this incredible movie in all its heart-warming glory.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © 20th Century Fox]

Check back next time for #39 on the list, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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