March 09, 2015

The Sound of Music at 50: Still Our Favourite thing?


Never mind Neil Patrick Harris’s underpants or Patricia Arquette’s politics; the show-stopping moment at this year’s Academy Awards came when Lady Gaga sang a medley to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music. Who would have predicted it? There on the stage was the avant-garde electropop star who once wore a dress made of raw meat swishing around in a white ball gown, belting out My Favourite Things in a cut-glass English accent.

It was a testament to Gaga’s ability to reinvent herself. But The Sound of Music is just as adept at moving with the times. The events that inspired the film took place in Austria in the 1920s and 1930s. Maria von Trapp’s memoir of those events was published in 1949, and was turned into a stage musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II 10 years later. Then came the film. It premiered in 1965, just a few months before The Beatles’ second film, Help! But although we think of The Beatles as dominating the Swinging ‘60s, it was The Sound of Music that was the Oscar-winning smash – and its soundtrack album was the UK’s best-selling LP, not just in 1965, but in 1966 and 1968.

The film’s march through the decades doesn’t stop there. In the 1970s and beyond, it was a holiday television staple. In the 1990s, it became the focus of Rocky Horror-style fancy-dress singalong nights. In critics’ polls, Singin’ in The Rain may be held up as the finest of all Hollywood musicals. But the most popular is indisputably The Sound of Music.

In an effort to understand the film’s eternal appeal, I thought I should rewatch it on DVD.

But then a question struck me: had I ever actually watched it in the first place? I knew I’d seen excerpts from it on clip shows over the years, and I had hazy memories of catching some of it on television on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but I wasn’t sure that I’d ever watched it from start to finish. And I suspect I’m not the only person in that position. We’ve all seen so many snippets and parodies that The Sound of Music is a part of our lives whether we’ve watched it or not. We can hum along to the title song, not to mention Do-Re-Mi and Climb Ev’ry Mountain. We can picture its heroine radiating wholesomeness as she gambols through the Alps, arms outstretched, apron swirling.

Most of us can have a stab at summarising the plot, too. A hearty trainee nun called Maria (Julie Andrews) is hired to look after the seven von Trapp children in a Salzburg schloss. She goes on to thaw the heart of the children’s widowed father (Christopher Plummer). But what else happens? Apart from the few scenes and the many songs that are burnt into our brains, what exactly does The Sound of Music entail?

The short answer is: not a lot. What surprised me when I finally watched the film last month was that if you’ve seen bits and pieces of it, then you’ve pretty much seen the whole thing. True, the von Trapps have to flee from the Nazis in the last half-hour – a sequence which is almost entirely separate from everything beforehand – but otherwise, there’s not much that happens.

Going for a song
It’s certainly not a film to watch for its narrative twists and turns. How does Maria win over the hostile von Trapp children? With one rendition of My Favourite Things. What convinces Captain von Trapp that she is a positive influence on his offspring? A performance of The Lonely Goatherd. And what convinces the audience that the captain has been influenced by Maria? A recital of Edelweiss. Compared to the elaborate musicals that made Andrews a star of stage (My Fair Lady) and screen (Mary Poppins), The Sound of Music is more of a concert than a film – a series of catchy Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers linked by some crisp repartee. But that isn’t a criticism. The fact that The Sound of Music resembles a greatest hits album could be the key to its record-breaking success.

“In many ways, The Sound of Music follows the classic musical structure that highlights its musical numbers over plot,” says Professor Caryl Flinn of the University Of Michigan, author of a new British Film Institute guide to The Sound of Music. “Cinema scholars in fact have grouped musicals along with porno and horror films for that reason – storylines aren’t generally what draw people in to watch these genres. In porno and horror, it’s all about getting to the next sex scene and the next scare; and in musicals, it’s all about getting to the next song. With The Sound of Music, songs are the real anchor for audiences’ feelings.”

It’s the film’s concentration on its peerless songs which accounts for the Sing-a-long Sound of Music phenomenon. In 1999, London’s Prince Charles Cinema started screening it every Friday evening, and encouraged audiences to dress up as the characters. The format has since been exported to cinemas all around the globe. The song-based structure also helps to explain why the film is a television fixture. From a TV station’s point of view, the songs make The Sound of Music easy to chop up into advertising-friendly chunks. From the viewer’s perspective, you can switch it on halfway through, and you won’t have any difficulty picking up the story.

‘Restraint and reserve’
And it isn’t just the plot that has been stripped back to basics. The film’s director and screenwriter, Robert Wise and Ernest Lehman, made West Side Story in 1961, but while that musical bursts with heightened colours and balletic dance routines, The Sound of Music has almost no choreography beyond some decorous waltzing, and no visual flair beyond the scenic shots of sunny Salzburg. “There is so much restraint and reserve in The Sound of Music,” says Professor Flinn. “I think it reflects the production team’s desire to go for simplicity and sincerity, and not risk courting anything too over-the-top or kitschy.”

Given that Plummer has spent decades decrying the film’s sickly sweetness, it might seem strange to hear it described in terms of simplicity and restraint, but Professor Flinn could be on to something. The Sound of Music may feature a goat-based puppet show and a gaggle of children in matching clothes made out of curtains, but Wise and Lehman actually diluted the stage play’s syrupy sentimentality: they skip from song to song without dwelling on any of the von Trapps’ triumphs or tragedies. 

 None of the children gets the chance to be too annoying; none of the romance is allowed to become too cloying. Andrews yomps through proceedings with no-nonsense briskness; Plummer stands back and observes them with a wry twinkle in his eye. Even the ending is restrained by today’s standards. We see the von Trapps hiking over the mountains and away from the Nazis, but there are no captions detailing what happened to them next, and no photographs of the real family. You can bet that if The Sound of Music had been made in 2015, it would have had both.

Plummer himself has come to acknowledge that the film is less mawkish than it might have been. As he says in an interview in the current issue of Vanity Fair, the director “did keep it from falling over the edge into a sea of treacle”. He’s right. The Sound of Music may be on the very edge of that treacly ocean, but it never quite falls in, and it’s this miraculous balancing act that keeps us watching, even after 50 years. Just ask Lady Gaga.

By Nicholas Barber

With thanks to BBC Culture 


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