Light and flaky, with all the nutritional value of any food typically given said descriptors, The Sound of Music has from day one been one of movie snobs’ easiest targets, though its instant-classic status is just as powerfully explicable. The Titanic of its day, The Sound of Music almost seems to be self-aware of its inherent stupidity. Worse, its white elephant eagerness manifests itself as a direct riposte to art itself. The effects achieved Robert Wise’s workmanlike presentation of overbearing Broadway titans Rogers and Hammerstein’s most rudimentary song score are aggressive in their plainness. ’Tis a gift to be simple, as the lyric goes. But if that’s truly the case, The Sound of Music looks a gift horse in the mouth and pukes burlap-textured wholesomeness into the cavity with the vigor of a tenor. And your criticism of its mandatory charms will slide right on down the freshly lubricated chute into a pool of like-minded Haterade. Because the movie’s legion of fans don’t just benefit from the movie’s oversized underachievements. They wield them like a cudgel. They represent a validation of all that’s not shallow, bite-sized, good old-fashioned entertainment. Fighting The Sound of Music is like fighting your grandparents’ invariably, stubbornly backward political opinions. Both have been institutionalized, and your insistence that the elderly not call Brazil nuts by their colloquialism only makes you look like a bully. Taking potshots at The Sound of Music (as even its own star Christopher Plummer did back in the day, calling it The Sound of Mucus) is taking advantage of the aesthetically vulnerable.
Deep breath. Can I play devil’s advocate? For as empty an experience as The Sound of Music on film is, is it okay to admit that it’s Carmen compared to the stage incarnation? Every plot modification made by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), every note of the enriched musical arrangements by Irwin Kostal, every coolly delivered, if still unimpeachably wholesome, line delivery by then Queen of the World Julie Andrews, all combine to turn what was even then a creaky piece of manipulative flibbertigibbet into a reasonably agreeable way to pass the time with your older relatives, and even subtly reveals some of the play’s more unseemly undercurrents. This is, after all, the story of a man with seven children getting a very young, idealistic nun so hot and bothered she leaves the convent to be his female dear, who will respond to his every beck and call of “Do-Mi.”
Lehman’s version softens up the Von Trapp children’s propensity for being entitled brats, but does so in a way that suggests the reason they can’t keep a governess is, and always will be, their cold father and commander-in-chief Georg Von Trapp. (Which opens up the possibility that the previous governesses also felt weakened in the knees by his bright, blue eyes.) Lehman wisely removes the two pointless musical numbers shared by Georg, his should-be-soused friend Max Detweiler and “The Baroness,” who intends to marry Georg and apparently decorate the walls of the villa with the skins of his seven progeny, to hear them tell it. Not only were the songs major momentum killers, but the second act ditty “No Way to Stop It,” which laughs off the onslaught of the Third Reich with a kernel of oom-pah nihilist wisdom, demonstrated a remarkable lack of self-awareness, given its appearance in one of the most calculatedly horror-avoidant pieces of WWII-set entertainment in American history.
Most crucially, though, he transforms the central character of Maria from the petulant child she is in the stage show into a woman straddling the line between girl and woman, beyond tracking the years (“Sixteen Going on Seventeen”) but still young enough to undermine authoritarian figures. It’s a position Andrews inhabits with more charm, radiance, and humor than the musical ever deserved. If you want to understand how The Sound of Music succeeded across the board even as the generation gap was splitting the movie audience into factions, start by comparing Andrews’s Maria against her inverse performance as Mary Poppins.
Still, there but for the grace of Julie are some of the most undeveloped melodies, the most uninteresting romantic machinations, the most toothless Nazis and the most overbearing deployments of Old World location shooting in blockbuster history. But please take my antipathy for The Sound of Music with a grain of salt. I did spend eight months of my childhood playing one of the Von Trapp litter and wondering why every time I said the line, “I’m Friedrich. I’m 14. I’m a boy,” I’d get a particularly enthusiastic laugh.
You want the Alps? You got the Alps. Following the 40th Anniversary Edition incarnation on DVD, this arbitrary 45th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray doesn't quite look like the sapphire that would be appropriate for the occasion, but pick one of the lowlier jewels given earlier on in marriages. Because the best thing that can be said about this presentation is that it looks like a much newer movie. The color balance still feels a little greenish to me, and there's a lot of gauze over cinematographer Ted McCord's lens, but there aren't many artifacts here, and plenty of pristine, gratuitous outdoor shots. The sound is even better, with a rich, orchestral sound in tasteful 7.1 surround. You'll be so far inside these terrible songs you'll feel as though you've arrived at the gates of hell.
Been to the Rocky Horror-esque Sound of Music sing-along? Want to recreate it at home? This three-disc set comes with all you'll need except for a nun-appropriate costume bra. (What sort of bras do nuns wear? That's the question that was never floated during "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?") The "Your Favorite Things" interactive experience lets you billboard your entire viewing experience with behind-the-scenes detritus, pop-up trivia, and other superfluous information. But you can also flash up all the lyrics and try to drown out that 7.1 sound using the "Music Machine Sing-Along." Or you could drown out the movie by flipping on the commentary tracks with Robert Wise (not interesting) or Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (interesting). The package also includes a well-stocked second disc with as much uncritical but well-researched background information as any given Disney DVD set. But beware, Pandora. Just because there are all those featurettes, interviews, interactives, vintage galleries, and whatnot available at your fingertips doesn't mean you should plunder forth where no man need go.
I'm no longer Friedrich. I'm no longer 14. And I'm no longer a boy. So why does this movie continue to haunt my nightmares?