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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Sound of Music: Still basking in a drop of golden sun

It’s exactly 45 years this spring since the release of the film version of The Sound of Music. Here’s my appreciation piece from the Sunday Express.

It's the film, which, in the words of critic Leonard Maltin has “pleased more people than practically any other film in history”. The Sound of Music, released 45 years ago this spring, is not just a film, it’s a global phenomenon. Sound of Music “flash mobs” have danced to such songs as Do-Re-Mi in railway stations as far apart as Antwerp in Belgium and Wellington in New Zealand.

Sound of Music sing-alongs, where members of the public, often wearing nuns’ habits and wimples, attend screenings, are sell-outs. In Salzburg, Austria, you can go on tours visiting the film locations. Over the past 45 years, millions of us have bought the film on video and DVD, and millions more watch when it is broadcast on television. Nearly half a century on from its release, the film’s popularity continues to grow. So how can we explain its extraordinarily enduring appeal?

First, there are the fantastic tunes. The composers, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, were among the most talented songwriters of the 20th century. They not only wrote the Sound of Music but other classics including the King And I, South Pacific, Oklahoma! and Carousel.

They penned songs that touched every human emotion. You’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by Climb ev’ry Mountain or charmed by Sixteen going on Seventeen.

Then there’s the great performances. Julie Andrews, the girl from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, was unforgettable as Maria, the high-spirited novice who decides to leave her life in the convent to become a governess for the von Trapp family.

Canadian Christopher Plummer was perfectly cast as Captain von Trapp, a disciplinarian who possessed enormous masculine charm.

Richard Haydn was memorable as impresario Max Detweiler, while Eleanor Parker made a glamorous Baroness. The children, headed by Charmian Carr as Liesl, were also magnificent.

Then there’s the way the film showcased the fantastic mountain scenery of Austria, surely one of the most beautiful countries on the planet.

Above all , though, there is the totally uncynical, joyous nature of the film. The Sound of Music was a product of its time: the sixties. It was an optimistic, upbeat age, where anything seemed possible. Post-war austerity had ended, the economic situation was improving rapidly and life, free of the stresses of the past, was there to be enjoyed.

Watching this film makes you feel glad to be alive. Forget antidepressants, the best tonic for modern living is simply to load a copy into your DVD player or listen to the soundtrack on your hi-fi, CD player or iPod.

It seems the authorities also understood the morale-raising qualities of the film. It was claimed that in the event of a nuclear strike on Britain during the Cold War, the BBC planned to broadcast its soundtrack on the radio.

My wife and I, long-standing Sound of Music devotees, paid our own tribute to the film when we recently visited Salzburg for the first time.

Like Maria and the von Trapps, we stood beneath the two statues at the entrance to the lovely Mirabell Gardens. We jumped down the steps at the top of the park as the children had done (though our choreography was nowhere near as good). Afterwards, we travelled by train into the countryside. on a glorious spring morning, gazing at the majestic mountain peaks, wooded hillsides and beautiful green meadows, it was easy for us to imagine the exhilaration Maria feels as she sings The Hills Are Alive. The question is, why don’t we make films like that any more?

Why is being cynical and nasty considered so “cool” nowadays? Is it because our society is much more cynical and nasty than it was in the sixties, when the film was made? Or could it be today’s downbeat films and tv programmes do much to create such an atmosphere? Nowadays it seems art is taken seriously only if it is dark, violent and shocking.

Contrast the wonderfully droll sixties Batman film and tv series starring Adam West with the latest, ultra-violent Batman film the Dark Knight, or ITV's early-eighties series Partners In Crime featuring James Warwick and Francesca Annis as charming husband-and-wife sleuths Tommy and Tuppence, with the current vogue for making gloomy detective programmes that feature incest, rape and violent sexual abuse.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Oscar Hammerstein, who died nine months after the opening of the stage show of the Sound of Music in 1960, believed that art, in order to be meaningful, doesn’t have to be downbeat.

“I don’t deny the existence of the tragic and frenetic but I say that somebody has to keep saying that isn’t all there is to life,” he declared. even in 1965, however, The Sound of Music was not to everyone’s taste.

Waspish film critic Pauline Kael complained: “We have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs.” Her view, and the views of other cynical Sound of Music haters, are the minority.

People around the world, in their continued affection for the film, have shown that they agree more with Oscar Hammerstein than with Pauline Kael.

Here’s to another 45 years of the uplifting Julie Andrews and co.


Anonymous said...

thanks for that Neil,.,,and you are right...Its art so we wont die of the truth...other films also become popular because they raise up peoples Slumdog, and Shawshank...Its also why fairy tale are perennial popular.


Mr. Piccolo said...

Really excellent article, Mr. Clark. I am puzzled by today’s gloomy culture as well. I am not sure it is just becomes times are harder now than in the 1960s, because a lot of pop culture from the ‘30s and ‘40s seems to have been rather upbeat or not so cynical, even though that was perhaps the most destructive period in human history.

I suppose one could argue that some of the unfulfilled promises of the 1960s left people gloomy, and art is suffering from that big letdown. But so many of the people who influence popular culture now weren’t really active in the 1960s, being either too young or perhaps not yet born, so maybe that is an incomplete explanation.

Personally, I think perhaps the best explanation is that, for a variety of reasons, people in the rich countries are now less likely to have strong human relationships, so people suffer from more loneliness and despair than in the past, and this is reflected in the culture.

Neil Clark said...

Brian- many thanks.
Mr Piccolo: many thanks. I agree with your explanation. There's an awful lot of loneliness and despair in the 'rich' countries and that is reflected in the gloominess- and nastiness- of the culture.