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THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood, Eleanor Parker
Director:  Robert Wise
Audio:  Dolby Digital 4.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.20:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  175 Minutes
Release Date:  August 29, 2000
                               

Film ****

Robert Wise is a director noted for being able to take popular stage musicals and translate them into films so cinematic in scope that they completely defy the notion that they came from the stage at all!  One such picture was his masterpiece West Side Story, a musical so teeming with life, energy and pent-up emotion that it seems to burst through the aperture borders.  A second example would have to be The Sound of Music, one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time, and one of the greatest.

In bringing the true story of Maria von Trapp and her family to the big screen, director Wise and screenwriter Ernest Lehman looked to three sources, the first being the popular Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical, naturally.  But a desire to capture a more fully realized story led them also to draw inspiration from the original German film The Trapp Family (scenes from which are shown in the disc’s modern documentary, and make for interesting comparison), and Maria’s own autobiography.  Her description of her walk from the convent to the von Trapp home actually helped inspire Richard Rodgers to pen a new tune to go along with that scene in the movie, “I Have Confidence in Me”.

But to limit praising The Sound of Music to calling it a “great musical” is unjust.  It’s simply a great film all around.  The box office numbers and steady video sales over the years are proof positive that it’s a movie that touches more than just fans of musicals.  On one hand, it has everything you’d expect from a big Hollywood musical:  a soundtrack of memorable songs, a lilting musical score, gorgeous locations and sets, beautiful costumes, dance numbers, appealing characters, warmth, humor, and romance.  On the other hand, can you remember the last time a musical achieved a sense of suspense the way this film does with the von Trapp family’s attempt to escape from Nazi-occupied Austria?

Like with West Side Story, Wise takes his time during the opening to establish the location of his picture, almost to the point of making it a character in and of itself.  We see shot after shot panning across the amazingly beautiful Austrian landscape, which eventually leads to the music’s gentle beginning that crescendos into Julie Andrews famed first appearance and the title song.  It’s a terrific introduction to Maria, a would-be nun with a spirit for life, a heart for song, and a tongue that’s rarely afraid to say what’s on her  mind.

But life in the convent is not to be for young Marie.  Mother Abbess (Wood) soon informs her of a new assignment—being governess to the seven children of the widower Captain von Trapp (Plummer).  Though not having much experience with children, she soon comes to learn that the Captain himself is as big a challenge as they are, with his rigidity and military-like mannerisms that border on ridiculous.  His children march, answer to a whistle, and don’t even get to play.  But the defiant Maria will soon have something to say about that.

While the Captain is out of Vienna visiting his soon-to-be finance, Baroness Schraeder (Parker), Maria taps into the children’s amazing gift for music.  And despite lack of approval from their father, they actually become a rather tight and talented singing group under her tutelage.

As the children’s world becomes more jovial, though, things begin to get serious for both Maria and the Captain, who are beginning to fall in love despite Maria’s determination to prove herself worthy of becoming a nun and the Captain’s unfortunate engagement.

But the sunshine and warmth of the romance, music and laughter eventually takes a grim turn, with Austria succumbing to the pressures of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s demand for unification.  The von Trapp’s way of life is disappearing before their eyes, and things go from bad to worse when the Captain is ordered to assume a command on a Nazi ship.  His refusal puts himself and his family in danger, and their only hope is a desperate escape attempt across the mountains.  An attempt set up, ironically enough, by the family’s new found musical fame—they escape after performing in a big state-sponsored concert, designed to prove to the world that Austria was still the same.  If there wasn’t already enough proof that it wasn’t, the Captain’s beautiful, heart felt rendition of “Edelweiss” will conclude the convincing.

That’s the essential story, but there’s SO much more to this movie than a plot.  As mentioned, the picture is gorgeous to look at from beginning to end.  Be it the stunning interiors and exteriors of the von Trapp mansion or the gloriously green landscapes of Austria, the film is certainly a delight for the eyes.  It’s even more so for the ears, with the famed musical score and songs including “Do Re Mi”, “My Favorite Things”, “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, and many others, including the well known title tune.  Of course, the music is brought to life wonderfully by the beautiful and unequalled voice of Julie Andrews, whose talent shows through not just in her singing, but her acting as well.  She captures the essence of Maria perfectly, and creates one of movie musical’s most endearing characters in doing so.

At one time, The Sound of Music was the highest grossing film in history, and remains the top moneymaking movie of the 1960’s.  It’s easy to see why.  With the songs, story, and spirit, the picture has a timeless quality and appeal, that keeps it a family favorite from generation to generation, with the next wave of youngsters soon to grow up and show the movie to THEIR kids as well.  That’s the kind of attribute that turns a great film into a bona fide classic.

Video ***1/2

Before I picked up my copy of this DVD, I became aware of some early reviews and articles that had expressed minor disappointments over Fox’s transfer of the movie.  One, I recall, even went so far as to say that you couldn’t tell that Julie Andrews had blue eyes.  After watching the presentation myself, I’m pleased to say that not only are Ms. Andrews’ eyes blue, but they jump right out at you from the screen.  I’m not sure if other reviewers saw the same disc I saw, but I’m pleased to report that I found the quality exemplary.

For starters, the colors:  you’ve probably never seen so many greens in one film as you will here, and they translate remarkably.  Each green has it’s own subtle shade and texture, and none dominates the other in any image.  But the greens are only a small part of the spectrum.  There are blue skies, black nights, white clouds and snow capped mountains, and every shade in between.  The Captain’s home is a marvel of set design both inside and out, and the imagery captured on film is quite breathtaking.  Often, the image is sharp enough for you to even identify singular leaves on trees in the background!  The print is notably clean, too, with very little in the way of debris or damage.  But the particularly perfect throughout is the framing.  The anamorphic transfer is shown in its 2.20:1 ratio (the correct one for 70 mm), and time and time again, I couldn’t help but notice how much attention was paid in giving each shot a picturesque framing.  The seven children, when on screen together, look as perfect as any family portrait, and in other shots, natural borders and backdrops are often utilized in creating succinct, exact images for the camera.  This picture is definite proof positive that widescreen images should NEVER suffer the fate of pan and scan presentations.

Now, the transfer is not QUITE perfect, but complaints are minor and few and far between.  One or two darker scenes suffer from softness and a bit of definition loss.  Most notably is the “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” number, which has visible inconsistencies from shot to shot, particularly in Mother Abbess’ habit.  Sometimes, the image is clear enough to where you can see the folds and details in her garment.  Other times, it becomes just a solid black mass with no distinguishable characteristics.  This scene was photographed a little darker, too, and suffers in comparison to the more plentiful brightly daylit ones.  I can report much less to complain about during the family’s escape, which was also photographed darkly, but had much better luck in maintaining good images and definition.

Still, I found MUCH more about this transfer praiseworthy than not, and the minor flaws are hardly enough to keep the overall experience from being a wonderful and memorable one. 

Audio ***1/2

The concept of a 4.1 soundtrack is new to me.  My receiver recognized individual signals to all six speakers, but I can’t say I noticed much coming from the rears, other than occasional, quiet duplication of the music coming from the front stage.  But that front stage is quite an amazing mix!  Spoken and sung words flow from speaker to speaker, mimicking the on-screen actions of the performers and creating a nice, open space for the audio to flow.  The dynamic range is fairly good, with occasional bits of strong music from the score and sound effects like thunder.  The .1 channel comes into play mostly for the music, and if you really want to appreciate the difference the subwoofer makes, switch back and forth between this audio track and the 2.0 surround during some of the more dramatic moments in the score—you’ll be impressed.

Features ****

What a package!  Fox has created another double disc set loaded with extras to go along with their releases of Fight Club, The Abyss and Independence Day—and in some ways, I think this DVD tops the others in this department!

On disc one, you get the DVD ROM link to the film’s website, plus a commentary/music track featuring director Robert Wise.  When he begins, he explains that this track is an attempt at something new.  During the non-music parts of the film, Mr. Wise offers a lot of interesting detail about everything you’d want to know, from the technical aspects, the behind-the-scenes information, working with the various actors, and so on.  He does so with a pleasant, relaxed style and an amazing memory.  When the songs begin, he stops talking to allow for music-only presentations of the tunes.  Nice, but a little surreal at first, when you hear the famous opening music swell and Julie Andrews open her mouth, but nothing comes out!  I don’t think this is the best way to make a commentary track, but given the length of the film, it works fine here, allowing Mr. Wise plenty of time to tell his stories around the sound of music.

Disc two features two documentaries:  the original 36 minute 1965 documentary Salzburg Sight and Sound and the more recent 87 minute The Sound of Music:  From Fact to Phenomenon.  The latter one features interviews with many of the creators and stars, including Robert Wise, Ernest Lehman, Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and more, including descendants of Maria von Trapp.  This film covers just about everything from the history of the von Trapps to the making and reception of the movie itself.

This disc contains a full bevy of audio recordings, too, including various interviews with Wise, Andrews, and Plummer, plus a 36 minute piece featuring Lehman that was made at the same time of the newer documentary.  The audio gallery also includes original radio commercials for the film, plus a recollection by Daniel Truhitte, who played Rolf in the movie.  These are all real treats.

Then there’s the usual collection of trailers and TV spots, a DVD ROM game, plus one of the most comprehensive and extensive picture galleries ever seen on disc.  Outlines actually guide you to what you want to see, and using text and images, takes you through the history of Austria and the von Trapps through the production of the film, with photos, storyboards and sketches galore.  All in all, this extras package is a fan’s dream come true, and one of the best all around I’ve seen on DVD!

Summary:

It’s this simple:  if you have a DVD player, you need to have this disc in your collection.  This is one of Hollywood’s crowning, classic achievements presented on an amazing DVD that will have the hills alive in your living room for years to come.