The Screen is Alive with the Sound of Music

It was fifty years ago that the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music, debuted on the silver screen.  Adapted from the successful stage production, which debuted six years earlier, in 1959, on Broadway, and went on to win five Tony Awards, it quickly became one of the all-time box office giants and one of filmdom’s most beloved musicals.  There’s a reason for that, several really, and soon, this April 19th and 22nd, movie fans will be able to see them all on the big screen for the first time in years as Fathom, in cooperation with Turner Classic Movies, presents The Sound of Music all around the country in selected theaters.


The Sound of Music is a movie that took me a long time to come to, possibly because I was carrying so much critical baggage I couldn’t quite reach it even if I had wanted to.  It’s the kind of movie that’s problematic for a lot of people and usually for all the wrong reasons.  It’s the kind of movie, bright and sunny on the surface, that feels wrong to like if you’re a young, discontent, and edgy cinephile hellbent on letting the world know how young, discontent, and edgy you are.  I know because, folks, that was me all over.  I watched it again about a year ago at the behest of some great TCM commenters who, after hearing my dismissals, urged me to give it another chance.  I bought it, watched it, and felt pretty foolish by the time it was over.  No, it’s not Vertigo or The Seven Samurai or even Repulsion, the great Roman Polanski movie released the same year, 1965, and long a favorite of mine.  But here’s the thing, and I don’t mean this flippantly or even as a half-hearted clever reversal: Vertigo, The Seven Samurai, and Repulsion aren’t The Sound of Music.  Let me explain.

​I find that we (or maybe it’s just “I” but I’m making myself feel better by saying “we”) judge movies according to strange standards of measurement that have a lot to do with what we consider to be an acceptable level of sincerity.  If a movie feels like it’s wearing its heart on its sleeve, we tend to put our guard up.  It feels orchestrated or exploitative of our feelings.  A movie like The Sound of Music does wear its heart on its sleeve and with songs like Climb Every Mountain it makes sure the audience knows it.  This movie is meant to inspire and it doesn’t try to hide that fact from the audience.  Some people might call that manipulation and some people might call it simple honesty.  Somewhere between the ages of 18 and 48, I made the journey from the first part of that last sentence to the second part.  I’m glad I did.


 ​A second problem people have with The Sound of Music is a common one audiences have with all movies “based on a true story.”  The problem is that very little in the movie corresponds to real life and this is a “problem” I have never quite understood.  It’s a movie, not a history lesson.  A story, not a lecture.  A journey, not an encyclopedia entry.  When I see a movie, I have one simple wish:  I want it to be good.  That may entail me laughing, crying, feeling horrified, thrilled, or enlightened.  In the end, all that matters to me is that what’s up there on the screen is worthy of this great act of communication we call the movies.  What doesn’t matter to me, at all, is if what’s up there on the screen corresponds, point by point, to actual historical events.  I simply couldn’t care less.  So when I hear people bemoan, “You know, in real life, they just took a train from Italy, they never crossed the Alps,” I think, “Wow, did you miss the point.”   There are plenty of resources, both online and off, where anyone can find out all they want about the real Von Trapps and what happened to them.  The movie’s not about that.  It’s about perseverance, finding one’s calling, and hope.

Maybe that last part is a part of the reason it took me so long to come to The Sound of Music.  I didn’t need hope that much when I was younger.  I hadn’t seen enough of the world yet to know how important hope was.   The Sound of Music may not wrap its story of escape from Nazi persecution in stark black and white vignettes of despair but that’s because other movies have, and will, and some movies take a different road.  The road taken by The Sound of Music leads straight through the heart and it doesn’t shy away from that.  Like I said at the start of this piece, there are several reasons The Sound of Music is so beloved and has stood the test of time so well.  Perhaps the most important of all is its honesty.  It is what it is and asks from you only that you accept it as such.

5 Responses The Screen is Alive with the Sound of Music
Posted By Marty : April 17, 2015 1:16 pm

Your post is interesting. When TSOM was playing first-run at The Rivoli Theater in NY,I was 16 years old. My parents wanted us to go see it and I had no desire to. I was never a big fam of Rodgers and Hammerstein (except for a number or two from South Pacific and The King and I). I found the tunes mawkish, sung to death by every high school chorus and variety singer on the planet. So instead of seeing TSOM, I left my parents and walked down the street to see The Flim Flam Man with George C. Scott. That picture was a mid-60s mess if there ever was one, but I was in NY, making my own movie choice. Ok, 50 years later, I still am not a fan of TSOM but I appreciate its quality production, performances and 20th’s bold decision to make it. They caught the country and the audience at exactly the right moment. Unfortunately, lightening never struck a 20th musical picture again — not Dr. Doolittle, not Star, not Hello Dolly.

Posted By Andrew : April 17, 2015 2:30 pm

I am with you 100% that the movie’s primary obligation is to tell a great story and not report the facts but once you bring “based on a true story” into it, you can’t pretend that you haven’t brought some baggage with it. Narrowly escaping from the Nazis is a very scary scenario and they had to either change the entire tone of the movie or have a head on collision with what we know, and they knew in 1965 too,with what the Nazis were really like.
They needed to handle it like Rick and Ilsa leaving Paris in Casablanca, urgency with no danger. Instead the chase feels like presenting a McRib as great barbacue. Yeah there is pork and sauce and roll but….

Posted By oystercrakker : April 17, 2015 5:23 pm

What I think is that the understandable accusations of exaggerated sentimentality and hokum etc. tend to mask and take away from intellectuals’ aesthetic appreciation of what in truth will probably be remembered as the second greatest R&H score — after Carousel, in my opinion …

It’s such a stupendously manipulative crowd-pleaser — & perhaps the only elderly, classic film that still comes across as “fresh” to mainstream audiences today, except for the almighty Wizard of Oz as well — that I think we tend to want to denigrate it & to believe that it can’t possibly be worthy of so much adulation

Everything in it is overwrought, even steroidal … Not least of which its unattainable vision of perfect motherhood … Has there ever been a real woman in the history of the universe who was actually T-H-A-T “good with kids” ?!? …

But anyone who grew up being cast in countless grade school musicals of this (once, most humiliatingly, as the “Brown Paper Package All Tied Up With String”); or anyone who has an abiding love for John Coltrane’s extended take on “My Favorite Things” — can readily feel and know the permanent status it’s taken on as part of the baseline “furniture” of our culture!

Posted By AL : April 17, 2015 9:43 pm

I saw TSOM on Broadway with Mary Martin and hated it because it was so cloying (complete with a treadmill to simulate MM bravely marching up the hill singing “Climb Every Mountain”!). Therefore, when I saw the film I was shocked at how superbly Robert Wise had eliminated almost all of the saccharine. I think it’s a Masterpiece. (Although I wish they hadn’t dropped the 2 numbers for the Contessa Eleanor Parker. Does anyone know if they were filmed?)

Posted By Dale : April 17, 2015 11:44 pm

I saw the movie in the early 1970s (I just can’t quite remember when anymore but I know I was a kid). In those days before Wikipedia it wasn’t all that easy to find out the “true” story, but my family knew the evils of Nazi Germany well enough. The real facts weren’t as important as the story on the screen, wrapped in songs that were memorable on their own, and in the end the Nazis lost.

I remember really wanting to meet Maria Von Trapp (their resort being just a few hours away), but that never happened. No matter – the film version suit me and my family just fine and learning the actual story took nothing away from it. Heck, even my Johnny Cash loving, westerns and war movie Dad liked it.

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