Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Hills Are Alive With Ambition In The Sound of Music

From the opening scene of The Sound of Music, you know you're about to watch an event. These initial shots make it clear that director Robert Wise is not gonna be playing a restrained game here, whether you actually end up liking or disliking the movie, Wise and everybody in the cast & crew is going to be swinging for the fences and beyond. For those unfamiliar, this extravagant opening scene depicts helicopter shots of the gorgeous Austrian landscape, with the mountains in this region getting particular visual emphasis. Right away, we get a sense that the main characters in this story inhabit an environment that's far bigger than themselves, a clever way to visually foreshadow how these same characters would become swept up in terrifying European World War II historical events that are also bigger than themselves.

The camera eventually finishes up filming these mountains by finding a human being it can zoom in on. This person who's dancing in the hills is our protagonist, Maria  (Julie Andrews), who proceeds to belt out an opening number that also properly establishes not only that this is a musical but what kind of tunes Rodgers & Hammerstein have created for this particular production. Just in its first few minutes, the sweeping nature of The Sound of Music is as clearly recognizable as the color of the sky while its unabashedly gung-ho sensibilities in regards to being an unapologetic musical are similarly clearly evident.

From here, we learn what kind of story we're in for as Maria has been hired to serve as the Nanny for the Von Trapp family, which lost its mother years ago and is now ruled over by Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). Despite having all the money in the world, Captain von Trapp is a stern soul who refuses to let any of his seven kids engage in any rambunctious shenanigans. Maria, who's had experience in being the musical nanny to a group of troubled youths, decides to make it her mission to help the Von Trapp children be more fanciful and fun, much to their father's chagrin. Eventually, Maria's music-heavy lessons get the von Trapp kids a chance to be a traveling band just around the same time as the Nazi's seize control of their home country.

A happy-go-lucky musical eventually incorporating Nazi's explicitly into its storyline is the kind of ambitious unorthodox storytelling move that's both surprisingly common in mid-20th-century musicals and also something I can't help but adore. Who says you can't have precocious youngsters belt out cutesy tunes about saying goodnight and also have those same youngsters eventually rebel against Nazi's? Merging these two disparate storytelling threads together in a surprisingly cohesive fashion is one of the best ways The Sound of Music's highly enjoyable ambitious tendencies result in something extremely entertaining.

The musical numbers also show a similar level of go-for-broke enthusiasm and aside from one or two tunes like The Lonely Goatherd that feel extraneous even by the charitable pacing standards of mid-20th-century musical fare, the songs here show impressive creativity in both the lyrics and the elaborate choreography performed by the characters as they belt out these songs. Best of all, the songs are just flat-out fun to watch and listen to which is quality so many movie musicals forget to bring to the table. I Have Confidence, for instance, has an endearing zesty can-do vocal performance from Julie Andrews to accompany the similarly determined lyrics while Do-Re-Mi truly astonishes in its intricately detailed choreography, how they got those child actors to execute such smoothly performed choreography and blocking is beyond me.

Clearly, much of the success of the musical numbers comes from the cast of actors, especially Julie Andrews in her second iconic 1960's musical lead performance. I wish Andrews had more to do in the last third of the story that shifts the focus more on Captain von Trapp as the Nazi threat becomes more prominent. But whenever the storyline does shift the spotlight over to Andrews, she just excels in the part, especially in any of the musical numbers where her vocal chops get put to good use. The endlessly creative lead performance from Julie Andrews exemplifies the kind of ambition that makes The Sound of Music so much fun to watch. Also making this film a treat to experience for the first time? Discovering that The Sound of Music is where this wonderful GIF comes from:

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