Nearly every movie-lover is familiar with the opening shot of The Sound Of Music, with Julie Andrews twirling on a mountaintop and singing “The hills are aliiiiive…” Except that isn’t the opening shot—not exactly. For a full three minutes before Robert Wise’s camera finds Andrews in rotation, it tracks lovingly above the European countryside, taking in the snowy cliffs, well-manicured estates, and ancient buildings, lending added meaning to the lyric “With songs they have sung for a thousand years.” After the credits, the time and place is noted as, “Salzburg, Austria, in the last golden days of the ’30s,” to establish that The Sound Of Music isn’t just about a headstrong young governess who teaches her employer and his kids to love life again. It’s also about indomitable old-world spirit, and how it survived the creeping forces of fascism.
The Sound Of Music has been picked over by skeptical critics since its debut as a Broadway musical in 1959, and even moreso since the première of the 1965 film version. It’s been dismissed as cloying, sentimental, and overly simplified, and ridiculed for turning one real-life family’s victory over their own grief and authoritarian mindset into an uncomplicated story of good people getting better. All of these criticisms are valid to a degree. It’s also worth noting The Sound Of Music’s curious take on progressiveness. As Maria, a novice nun who falls in love with Austrian naval officer Georg von Trapp (played by Christopher Plummer), Andrews comes across as a modern woman, standing up for herself and for the von Trapp children. But Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s songs undercut the modern outlook with their nostalgic music, which romanticizes old folk songs, young love, and happy memories of childhood. The Sound Of Music is set in a mythical golden age, yet it’s populated by characters who pine for an even more golden one.
That tension between the happy past and the uncertain future makes The Sound Of Music richer than its reputation. Wise maintains the stately pace that was his hallmark as a director (an odd hallmark for a former editor), as he holds on shots that look like vacation slides prepared by the Austrian tourist bureau. And yet the occasional Nazi flag stains the scenery, and the characters quietly grapple with their responsibilities to an objectionable regime. Ultimately, our heroes cling to the promise that the Austrian edelweiss will bloom anew—even as they’re holding actual edelweiss flowers in their hands. The real-world threats largely remain abstractions in The Sound Of Music, which may explain why the stage musical and the movie have remained so successful over the years. Audiences connect to the generalized feelings of loss and renewal more than their historical specifics.
In the film version, it helps hugely to have Andrews and Plummer conveying those feelings. Andrews is gleefully unfettered in showing Maria’s embrace of life’s simple pleasures, and Plummer is just as inviting, in his own way. He shows different sides of his martinet character early on—stern around the house, yet charming with his friends—until he hears his children singing the title song, and melts completely. He has his own moment akin to Maria’s hilltop spin, as he takes up his children’s song, crooning, “I know I will hear what I heard befoooore…” Always, this musical looks ahead by looking back.
Key features: A warmly reminiscent Andrews/Plummer commentary track, plus a sketchy Wise track, pop-up trivia, and a second Blu-ray disc with hours of interactive featurettes about the film’s origins and its modern legacy.