Judge Jesse Ataide has been singing about his favorite things for days.
Our reviews of The Rodgers And Hammerstein Collection (published January 15th, 2007), The Sound Of Music (published August 31st, 2000), and The Sound Of Music (Blu-Ray) 45th Anniversary Edition (published November 29th, 2010) are also available.
"These are a few of my favorite things…"
I have a love/hate relationship with The Sound of Music, a situation I think a share with a number of people who have seen it. Obviously, there are those on the extremes: the anti-musical contingent who automatically despise any film where a song spontaneously bursts from a character's lips, as well as those who love the film unconditionally, willfully oblivious to any flaws in the name of nostalgia or any number of reasons.
So what about those like me who fall somewhere between these two extremes? As a self-described devotee of all films that are quirky, obscure and/or subtitled, what is it about this monstrous sugar-coated musical that draws me in again and again?
Facts of the Case
The Sound of Music is the Hollywoodized version of the true-life story of the von Trapp family, a large Austrian family who became a successful singing group after being forced to flee from their native country in the wake annexation by Nazi Germany.
Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins) stars as Maria, a headstrong, carefree young woman who leaves a convent to take a governess position for a local family. She quickly wins the hearts of the seven children, showing them a life full of music, sunshine and song that is drastically different from the strict existence they endured under the parental techniques of their emotionally distant father, Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, The Insider). Soon the children are singing, their father has fallen in love with the new governess, and only the Nazi regime seems to stand in the way of the perfect Hollywood ending.
And yet all of this seems rather superfluous, for The Sound of Music is truly one of the few films that needs no introduction. It was an instant triumph with audiences upon its release in 1965, and it quickly established itself as the most financially successful film of all time (a record that has long since been surpassed). Additionally, its five Oscars wins (out of 10 nominations) served as strong validation from the critical community. At that point, it is safe to say that the Sound of Music myth was firmly established.
As I'm faced with the daunting task of trying to comment on this massive film, I will use the 10 categories that the film was nominated for an Academy Award as a crude guide to explore the different facets of this film. Surely one could dedicate a several thousand word review solely on the film's backstory and historical context, its instantly recognizable score, the many talents of Julie Andrews, or any number of possible angles a film of this scope and reputation presents. And yet somehow, to focus on one single element seems to fail to do the whole film justice. And so I begin.
Best Picture (Won): Countless critics over the years have attempted to pinpoint the source of The Sound of Music's continued popularity. Some cite its family-friendly appeal, the nostalgia factor, the instantly recognizable Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein score, and the enticing charms of Julie Andrews. Some place it within a historical context, examining how it was one of the very last musical smash hits, a clear marker of the decline of the movie musical as one of Hollywood's dominant genres. Perhaps it is the illusion of a simpler, more innocent time that draws people unexpectedly under its power. Surely all of these factors and more contribute to The Sound of Music's continued popularity. But what is clear is that this film, which fully and unashamedly embraces a set of wholesome values, for one reason or another, continues to enjoy a remarkably large following in an extremely jaded postmodern world.
Best Director (Won): What struck me this time around is how superb this film is on a technical level. The story that the film is based on is so intimate that it's quite easy to overlook how enormous and sprawling the film truly is. For not only does it contain the large cast, the choreography and countless costume and set changes required of movie musicals, it's quite amazing how many locations and other technical challenges the cast and crew had to deal with while making this film. Much of the film was shot on location in Europe, a decision that now seems entirely natural and almost inevitable (for what would this film be without its breathtaking shots of the Alps?), but surely this creative choice also complicated the film's production (and production costs) a hundredfold. For example, I count at least 10 unique locations pictured in the montage between the "Favorite Things" and "Do-Re-Mi" numbers alone. This clip comprises just over two minutes of the film's 174 minute running time.
That the entire film wasn't bogged down by all of these technical challenges must be attributed to the film's director, master craftsman Robert Wise. Getting his first big break starting out as a film editor for Orson Welles on both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Wise quickly moved to the director's chair, where he distinguished himself under the guidance of Val Lewton with The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. These early films launched one of the most diverse careers in Hollywood history, for Wise perhaps directed more masterpieces in different genres than any other single director in film history. Consider: The Haunting (horror), The Day the Earth Stood Still (sci-fi), The Set-Up (noir), I Want to Live! (social drama), Executive Suite (melodrama), and West Side Story and The Sound of Music (musical), for the most obvious examples from his long filmography. Though his diversity often means he's denied auteur status, I have no hesitation with ranking Wise among Hollywood's finest directors, and I personally consider The Sound of Music to be just as fine of an example of Wise's talent as the gritty, economical noirs he made early in her career. For Wise's decades of experience is on full display in The Sound of Music, as it remains tightly constructed at its core despite its deceptive appearance as an overblown musical.
Best Actress, Julie Andrews (Nominated): "[The Sound of Music] is all about joy, and everybody senses it." That's Julie Andrew's own explanation of the film's success, and certainly a large part of that "joy" emanates from Ms. Andrews herself. Just coming off of her tour-de-force performance in Mary Poppins (for which she won an Oscar), the dual roles as the "practically perfect" British nanny and of the indefatigable nun/governess established a sunny screen persona that Andrews has been unable to shake off over the course of her entire career that spans decades.
And it's no wonder. Focusing on her performance as Maria von Trapp alone, it is easy to understand why so much of Andrew's reputation rests on this performance. It's easy to write Maria off as a one-note study in relentless optimism, but the fact is, the entire film hinges on how well Andrews is able to sell the material to the audience. A lesser actress could easily be swallowed by enormity of a picture, and that Andrews manages to serve as a bedrock for this film while maintaining her composure in such a breezy, effortless manner is testament to her many talents as an actress, singer and technical perfectionist. All of the bonus material attests how intelligent and thoughtful Andrews is, and to simply write-off her performance as mere cheerful enthusiasm is to do a rather remarkable woman a great disservice.
Best Supporting Actress, Peggy Wood (Nominated): It is interesting that of all the supporting actors in this film, Wood, who plays the Mother Abbess, was the one singled out for praise by the Academy. While Wood certainly manages to establish a tremendously warm and sympathetic aura in several minutes of screen time, I think most would agree that several of the other performers, including Eleanor Parker (the Baroness), Richard Haydn (Uncle Max) and perhaps most obviously, the tremendously talented Christopher Plummer as the Captain were probably more deserving of the honor.
For with every viewing, I'm more and more impressed by Plummer's performance. The measured, almost sinister undertones he initially brings to the role of Captain von Trapp serves as the major catalyst against the film's many saccharine streaks. It's not a showy performance but a dense one, and only plays better and better as time goes by. I'm also increasingly convinced that Eleanor Parker (Detective Story), the lovely Hollywood actress who plays the Baroness, achieves a small miracle in the essentially thankless role, imbuing her performance with a sense of grace, poise along with just the rest blend of frigidity and human warmth.
And of course there are the seven children, from Charmain Carr down to Kym Karath, and their unique combination of enthusiasm and cuteness is one of the chief joys that the film provides.
Best Music, Adaptation (Won) and Best Sound (Won): What needs to be said? "The Sound of Music," "My Favorite Things," "Do-Re-Mi," "Edelweiss," "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," "The Lonely Goatherd," "So Long, Farewell"…the song list plays like a Hollywood's greatest hits compilation. Of course the film won the Oscar for its music and use of sound. How could it have not?
Best Cinematography (Nominated) and Best Editing (Won): Though at times the film turns a little too soft-focus and sun-dappled for my taste, it's hard to deny how phenomenal this film looks, from the breathtaking alpine vistas to the interiors of the church on down to the plain little bedroom where Julie and the children muse about their favorite things. The massive scope of this film has already been mentioned in this review many times, and the cinematography certainly emphasizes this on a visual level. With the crystal clarity of the image provided on this DVD, one is able to appreciate Ted D. McCord's stunning work behind the camera all the more. Additionally, the intricate editing during the numerous musical sequences in particular was rather groundbreaking in and of itself, making its Oscar well deserved.
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration (Nominated) and Best Costume Design (Nominted): On one level, The Sound of Music is a very handsome period piece, a film filled with beautiful European mansions with picturesque gardens and Rococo ballrooms. But what sets the art direction apart are the things that can't be seen in the film—the numerous recreations that had to be made when a location proved inaccessible or too unwieldy to film in or the complicated stringing together of multiple locations to give the illusion of authenticity. Likewise, the costumes are numerous and varied, from Maria's ill-fitting governess outfit to the Baroness's elegant ballroom gown. What the styles and materials lack in authenticity is made up with the appropriateness to the specific character's persona.
But for all of the technical elements to be impressed with while watching The Sound of Music, what impresses me most is this sense of genuine, exuberant love and affection for the film that emanates from the cast and crew that I find simply infectious, for it's hard not to fall under the film's spell when those involved immerse themselves in it so thoroughly. The voluminous bonus material included on this release attests to this fact again and again—the cast and crew are just as devoted Sound of Music fans as everybody else.
Even though I am far from an expert on the subject, to these eyes and ears both the picture and the sound found on the 40th Anniversary release are just about flawless. The image is bright and clean, and the colors are sharp and defined. I could detect only one obvious image defect during its entire three hour running time (a vertical black line that appears for several seconds late in the film), a blemish that is hardly worth mentioning. I have seen the previous DVD release once which also showcased impressive picture and sound, but I can't comment on how they directly compare. Since both release impressed me, I imagine the differences are slight, even though this latest release declares itself as "restored."
The audio is just as good as the image quality, which is essential for a film sporting one of the most famous scores in cinema. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is included (as well as dubs in both French and Spanish), as well as a Dolby Digital 5.0 option that takes full advantage of the surround sound without becoming distracting. Kudos to 20th Century Fox on a job well done when presenting this film.
Then begins the special features, which provide hours of extra material that cater both to causal fans and rabid devotees of the film.
Disc One Special Features
Audio Commentary by Julie Andrews & Co: A brand new commentary for this release, it features Andrews, who not only generously reminisces on scene-specific details, but serves as a kind of master-of-ceremonies as Plummer, Charmain Carr and several other individuals stop by to include their own memories and comments at various points of the film. Though not as informative as the other commentary track provided on this disc, it is probably the one that would appeal most to casual fans of the film.
Audio Commentary by Director Robert Wise: This commentary, held over from the previous DVD release of this film, is still perhaps the most valuable extra provided in this bevy of bonus material, considering the wealth of information Wise shares throughout the track that sheds new insight on numerous aspects of the film. Considering that Mr. Wise passed away just several months ago, it is fortunate that this information has been recorded for future generations of film fans. Additionally, all of the song sequences in this track are provided sans vocals, so that it is possible to appreciate the quality of the underscoring in a whole new way.
SINGALONG Karaoke Subtitle: Provided in English, Spanish and French, this feature allows this inclined to sing along with their favorite songs by providing white subtitles that turn yellow as the words are sung, allowing the newest member(s) of the chorus to follow along without missing a single word.
Disc Two Special Features
My Favorite Things: Julie Andrews Remembers: Julie Andrews heads an hour-long featurette on the making of the film, and is joined by Christopher Plummer, Charmain Carr, Robert Wise, choreographer Dee Dee Wood, and Johann von Trapp, the youngest son of Maria von Trapp, for support. Overall it serves as an effective blend of strolling down memory lane with hard information that will satisfy many of the film's fans.
Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer: A Reminiscence: These two old pros reunite again for a twenty minute chat about their scenes together in the film. Though there is much mutual self-congratulation going on, Plummer's sarcastic sense of humor in particular makes this a rather amusing conversation to witness.
On Location with The Sound of Music: Charmain Carr takes a twenty minute tour of Mozart's home town of Salzburg to many of the locations that were either used in the film or were recreated for that express purpose.
From Liesl to Gretl: A 40th Anniversary Reunion: All seven of the actors who played the von Trapp children are reunited for a half-hour long interview where they laugh and discuss everything from how they were cast to their most embarrassing moments (which are then displayed for all to see with some clever integration of footage from the actual film). But the most interesting element of this featurette is to see how the chemistry between these seven children was the real deal as they talk about how their friendships with each other have lasted over 40 years. In the closing minutes they call themselves a real family, and judging from the footage shown, it's hard to disagree.
When You Know the Notes to Sing: A SINGALONG Phenomenon: A look at the bona-fide phenomenon that has been described as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Prozac." This is a twelve minute look at the SINGALONG that was held in front of a crowd of 18,000 in honor of the film's 40th Anniversary.
Biography special "The von Trapp Family: Harmony and Discord": A routine but much-needed 45 minute examination of the musical family that inspired the immortal story, proving that life in the von Trapp family wasn't always as happy and fun as it was eventually depicted on screen.
Restoration Comparison: A look at how 20th Century Fox and Academy Film Archive went about completely restoring the film, with visual demonstrations of the difference between the 1993 and 2005 versions of the film, as well as the difference Digital Video Restoration made in restoring the film to its original visual splendor.
Mia Farrow Screen Test: Yes indeed, you can see several seconds of the future Rosemary's Baby star dressed as Liesl and sing a few bars of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."
Trailers and TV Spots: A teaser trailer, five different theatrical trailers, and a testimonial trailer.
Photo Galleries: Behind the Scenes, Storyboards, Lobby Cards and Posters: A voluminous number of drawings, photos and memorabilia showcased for perusal.
As far as the extras are concerned, the only thing I wish was that Eleanor Parker would have been able to contribute in some way. Just about every other surviving member of this production seems to have appeared at some point in the bonus material, though this leads me to believe that there is probably a good reason Ms. Parker was not able to appear.
When it comes down to it, I'm forced to admit the fact that this film, which somehow manages to persuade me over and over to abandon all critical faculties and just rapturously sing along, is a great one.
A favorite thing indeed. Not guilty.
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• Introduction by Julie Andrews
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