Now that the summer blockbuster season is over and Hollywood is throwing their refuse at us in the hopes that we don’t notice – as opposed to say, throwing their refuse at us in the hopes that we throw piles of money back – I’m pressed for films to review. There’s not a chance that anyone is going to make me see Dolphin Tale 2, so instead I’d like to announce a new series about movies everyone seems to love but which are actually terrible. I’ll update it during lulls in the release calendar – which will pretty much cover six months out of the year.
Everyone has a film that they hate despite public opinion (or critical opinion) practically hailing it as the coming of the savior that will lead us to the land of milk, honey, and pantlessness. I have many. I do get why people would want to be distracted from the daily grind, but something that distracts you is not necessarily good. Shiny keys have been known to amuse babies and people with particularly bad head wounds, but we shouldn’t be discussing how moving and gripping the keys are is and how they represent an important critical milestone.
So, for the first in the series, I would like to take a look The Sound of Music.
This film was constantly on in my house when I was a child. My mom is a big musical fan and this was one she remembered from childhood. I remember having the two VHS tape copy of it. As I grew up, I realized that everyone has a similar story to mine. It is legendary. It is part of the public consciousness.
It is also unbearably bad.
The Sound of Music is one of the most pathetically mawkish films ever created. The songs are profoundly bad. The performances are bad. And the themes and emotions of the film are wildly misplaced.
I’ll start at the beginning.
For the three of you who don’t know, the film is about the nun Maria (Julie Andrews) being hired as a governess for Georg Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, who hated working on the film and still doesn’t like talking about it) and his children. They start off mean but learn to embrace life. This also takes place just as the Nazis are about to decide that a nation’s border is more of a guideline than an actual rule.
This is all set to music, even though it’s not necessary. It’s also about as long as a David Lean film, even though the plot runs out about 70 minutes in.
Already we see flaws in the film. The characters are limited and the plot is terrible. I know it’s based on a true story, but nothing about The Sound of Music ever felt real. Everything stayed on the screen. It was almost stubborn just how the film went out of its way to not present people, but objects. I wanted to know more about Liesl. I wanted to know why Maria was she the way she was. But it wasn’t going to happen. Maria is what Nathan Rabin called the Manic Dream Pixie Girl. Liesl is the Rebellious Teen. The Captain is what I call the Cryogenic Frozen Heart Man (because all he needs is to be thawed, you see, and everything will be normal). I can say those words and you’ll know everything you need to know about the character. That is not good writing, and if I’m going to care what these people are singing about, I need to care about them.
But this is not the worst part of the movie. The Sound of Music’s biggest flaw is in how inappropriate it is in addressing this dark chapter in world history.
This is not a movie that simply takes place at the same time as the rise of Nazism. That is meant to be one of the central conflicts of the film, with the presence of Rolf and the third act escape across the Alps. The resistance to Nazism is the point of work (even though it’s introduced too late in the film). This is a fine goal and one that has produced great works.
But the film is uncomfortable addressing it head on. Many filmmakers make this mistake – they think the point of such a film is look for the light in the darkness. That’s entirely inappropriate. Nazism is about the failure of humanity towards humanity. Those small acts of kindness ultimately don’t mean much in the wake of millions of deaths. The Sound of Music takes it further by presenting the light as the norm and the rising darkness as a minor inconvenience from the happy singing children. Rolf, Liesl’s boyfriend he joins the Nazis, is basically a non-entity and the late “Edelweiss” scene, which is supposed to be the sort of Bob Dylan protest, is so subdued it’s practically meaningless. Normally I wouldn’t care for the bombastic, but this is supposed to be a musical. It’s supposed to be about heightened emotions and heightened reality. So why is the biggest part of all so subdued?
“But,” I hear you saying, “the songs are what makes the film work. They are so sweet and memorable. It’s impossible not to find them catchy.”
Well, let’s take a look at the lyrics.
“Do, a deer, a female deer/Re, a drop of golden sun/Mi, a name I call myself/Fa, a long, long way to run.”
These are not lyrics that are written to capture the public imagination. These are the lyrics Raffi writes when he’s on a tight deadline. And all the lyrics in the film are like this. They’re about confidence, my favorite things (which is about copper kettles and string, as though Maria is suffering from undiagnosed ADHD or is possibly a cat), and about being sixteen going on seventeen (which just reminded me of that Patton Oswalt bit about how many birthdays people should be reasonably allowed to have in their lives). There is nothing to suggest any deep thought about these characters or what they’re going through. That song about confidence that spring will come again is probably the closest, but again, it’s all so bright and happy where that’s not entirely appropriate. And who cares about a puppet show with goats? What does that say about the characters? Nothing. You could get rid of most of the songs and still learn as much about everyone as you do in the final cut.
The best musicals use their songs to examine ideas and emotions that cannot be expressed any other way. They essentially work as soliloquys, examining the deepest recesses of the characters’ minds. Go watch Chicago, The Wizard of Oz, and even Tommy. The songs not only propel the plot but reveal something about the characters. The songs in The Sound of Music (barring the obvious “I Have Confidence” and maybe “Edelweiss”) do not accomplish that goal. They exist for the sake of existing. I guess the fact that they’re still remembered prove they accomplished their goals, but I don’t think I’m being a curmudgeon by demanding that the songs do something more for the story and the themes. The Sound of Music is a musical that doesn’t need to be a musical to get its point across. Here’s an idea – why not turn that scene with the introduction of the kids into a song? That would have worked. But no, I guess we should all talk about doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles. Because that’s truly what the subconscious desires and longs to shout out.
So, why is this film so popular? It’s probably for the reasons I hate it – because it serves as an escape from a time and place that people still don’t want to face. There is a natural inclination for people to try to find the ray of light in darkness. The Sound of Music provides that light. But it also takes two steps back in honesty and runs a marathon backwards in the treatment of its characters. The rise of Nazism is not the appropriate backdrop for a story about people embracing life. We know that in a few years, they probably would not be alive anyway as the Nazis and then the Soviets turned Europe into the least fun game of Risk ever played. And even if this is a last hurrah, surely they can think of a better way to spend it than singing about lonely goats high on hills.