Directed by: Robert Wise. I hesitated writing this review because I felt like there was some grand, insightful post waiting to formulate, but I’m not sure that it’s going to come anytime soon, and the longer I leave it, the longer I kind of defeat the purpose of the whole “offhand” angle. I am just so struck with how many arms’ lengths I’ve been keeping this film from myself for my whole life, never really knowing why, blanketing it under a generalized idea that “It’s just some lame musical and it’s for kids and it’s for old ladies and I wouldn’t like it anyway so why bother?”. When I saw it at a discount bin at a used bookstore, the aspiring film guy in me was confident enough to emerge a bit and say: “Okay, this is a classic of cinema, a cultural landmark, and it would be silly to deliberately exclude this from my knowledge because I thought it was lame.” As I suspected, both sides of that internal dialogue were correct—it’s definitely a cultural landmark, and it’s also definitely pretty fucking lame, as long as we define “lame” like I do, in a nonjudgmental, factual way. It’s lame—it’s quaint, it’s flowery, it’s old-fashioned, it’s so fucking wholesome and nice in every way. But, of course, it’s the fucking Sound of Music, so what do you want? None of this was surprising.
What was tremendously surprising was how much I enjoyed every fucking minute of it. I was even singing along for God’s sake (and I never realized that this movie is like the Casablanca of show tunes—I knew just about every one!). I was also surprised by how damn interesting it is just from a film-guy point of view. This is not a pat, predictable, colour-by-numbers inspirational story about children and Nazis and singing and mountains and finding true love, the kind of which we seem to be drowning in these days (don’t ask me for empirical data). On the contrary, this is a very strange, interesting and unusual narrative. Basically, this is two discreet stories back-to-back, and they seem to bear no necessary logical relation to one another, leaving the way open for a kind of subtextual/allegorical/metaphorical key to linking the two (and you know I love that shit). First, it’s the story of a young girl in a nunnery, too wild for the other nuns, sent away to be baroness to a family of kids, whose exuberant energy—conveyed through music—joyously disrupts the military obedience and order of the household, she slowly falls in love with the stern widower, and melts his heart with the power of music. Second, it’s the story of a staunch Austrian nationalist, a military man whose resistance to the rise of the Nazi government and its slow reach into his own back yard puts him and his family at risk. He has to choose to either fall in line and be shipped off for military service far away, risking his life for a cause he detests, or to rebel, fleeing the rigid pattern of his life. Of course, thanks to his newfound love, he has the emotional courage to rebel, and the whole family flees into the picturesque alps to laugh and sing together, presumably for the duration of the war (?).
Does all of that sound like a typical sentimental feel-good love story musical? On paper, it’s so bizarre, but it’s one of the most universally embraced mainstream films of all time. This must have something to do with how seamlessly these two discrete stories mesh together, and—big hint—it’s in the music! In both of these stories, each of which could easily stand on its own as a respectable 90 minute film (and void of spontaneous singing, for that matter), there is that extra element of music serving as a metaphor for…something. What then? Near as I can tell, it seems to stand in for plain old human exuberance. That sounds a bit weak, and “exuberance” is probably not the best word, but if you think of the film, that seems to be about it. In the film, the music is tied to everything that’s worth getting behind, every positive source of drama. Maria’s love of life and of nature, her outspoken and candid and spontaneous personality is conveyed through song, and is opposed to the fretful, orderly nature of the nuns (who nonetheless sing themselves!). The positive, playful, youthful effect she has on the children is, of course conveyed primarily through teaching them those iconic songs (including the surprisingly obvious self-reflexivity of “Do-Re-Mi”). Of course, the relationship with the stern widower (Can-con Christopher Plummer, killin it in the role that made him) rests largely on his repressed talent as a very good singer. It’s the most interesting buried element in the film that, all along, all he needed was to learn how to sing again, to meet a woman like Maria (Julie Andrews! ohhhhh) and to smile and laugh and dance and sing with his kids again, like he (apparently) did before their mother died. If the film is a story of the exuberance of the human spirit (and human sexuality, but this article is long enough) coming into conflict with repressive individuals and institutions, then it’s interesting that all of these individuals and institutions—the captain and even the head nun!—reveal their true humanity by singing a song and coming to Maria’s side in one way or the other. The only adversary in this story of shifting adversaries that doesn’t sing a syllable is the head Nazi guy. Sure, he enjoys music enough to permit the one last performance and seems to enjoy it, but we don’t see him sing at all, and an affinity for music seems to be a prerequisite in this film for being remotely capable of feeling/being worthy of human emotion. Just remember poor Rolf, the telegram boy: in the First Act, he’s “sixteen, going on seventeen”, but in the Second Act, he’s a little Nazi shithead, just short of killing his girlfriend’s dad for his betrayal to the Nazi cause (and then rats on him anyway).
Make no mistake—music is the human element here that has kept mainstream audiences reading this 3-hour compound narrative about repressed sexuality and resistance to fascism as an easily palatable, one-dimensional celebration of love and life and the human spirit for the last 50 years. Classic Hollywood’s ability to do this kind of shit—to convey a commercial hit that fits all of the conventions of the day while still packing it with enough cultural substance to keep people chewing on it 50 fucking years later—makes my jaw drop every time I see it, and makes me incredibly envious of anyone who could have waltzed into the theater to see this kind of thing as the most tame, palatable, box-office fluff of the day.