It's one of the most successful and beloved films in Hollywood history, and yet 'The Sound of Music' continually gets a bad rap. Too saccharine, chant the naysayers. Too cutesy, too schmaltzy. Too many precocious singing children mugging and jockeying for camera position. Too many chipper and cheery songs. Too many nuns. Too much pious inspiration. And then there's that too-good-to-be-true nanny routine of Julie Andrews. Shouldn't we all just take a spoonful of sugar and rename this picture 'Mary Poppins Goes to Austria?'
Okay, take a deep breath. Take a step back. Close your eyes and open them again, and take a fresh look at 'The Sound of Music' without all of the baggage and hearsay that's beaten down this monumentally popular movie over the past few decades. For if you approach Robert Wise's adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage hit with an open mind and unspoiled heart, it's impossible not to be seduced by its considerable charms and admit (however grudgingly) that 'The Sound of Music' is a fantastic film that justly deserved its Best Picture Academy Award and continues to dazzle and entertain a full 45 years after our first introduction to the vociferous Von Trapps. And on Blu-ray, it is truly wunderbar!
One of the first mega-blockbusters of modern cinema, 'The Sound of Music' enjoyed an initial and unheard of run of almost four years. That outdistances both 'Titanic' and 'Avatar' by a long shot (eat your heart out, James Cameron), and it's easy to see why. The themes of family, perseverance, defiance, and maturation that swirl about 'The Sound of Music' are far-reaching and universal, and audiences of all ages can respond and relate to them. The Salzburg locations with the breathtaking alpine backdrops thrill the senses, and the score – the final effort of arguably the most lauded and influential composer and lyricist in the history of musical theater – contains scads of instantly recognizable and beautifully structured songs.
Based on the life of Maria von Trapp (Andrews), a free-spirited nun-in-training who becomes governess to the seven recalcitrant children of the gruff Baron von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) on the eve of Nazi aggression in the mid-1930s, 'The Sound of Music' tells a simple story laced with some predictable dramatic embellishment, but it’s the exuberant presentation and top-flight performances that elevate it to classic status. Watching Maria tame and emotionally seduce both the children and the baron, with whom she (of course) falls in love, and witnessing the family's musical development would never normally sustain interest over the course of three hours, but the talented Wise (who also helmed 'West Side Story') treats the tale as an epic, and his inspired use of location (a critical element the stage show lacked) and active staging of songs propel the movie forward so we're blissfully unconscious of its length. In many musicals, the numbers often disrupt the story's flow, but Rodgers and Hammerstein always made sure their songs advanced the plot, deepened relationships, and shaded characters, and Wise honors their methodology, alternating intimacy with grand-scale treatments.
Andrews may have won a controversial Best Actress Oscar for her film debut in 'Mary Poppins,' but her signature role remains Maria, and she and 'The Sound of Music' will be inexorably linked for all eternity. And why not? From the moment she raises her arms and trills "The hills are alive…" moments after the film begins, she captivates her audience, and her pure, almost angelic tones, boundless energy and warmth, and fresh-faced beauty engender immediate admiration. Andrews personifies the naïve, insecure, inexperienced novice who attacks her Herculean task with equal parts spunk and tenderness, and her readings of such immortal Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes as 'My Favorite Things,' 'Do Re Mi,' and the title song remain definitive. And if you still feel the need to carp that she's too virginal or prim, just watch the achingly romantic 'Something Good,' and you might just change your mind. Dame Julie definitely has a sexy side, and in that gazebo scene with Plummer she makes all of us fall in love with her.
Andrews, though, is not the whole show. Plummer may have initially regarded his role with thinly veiled disdain, but he's quite good, as are Eleanor Parker as the stuffy baroness who vies for his attentions and Peggy Wood as the patient and inspirational Mother Superior. (Though dubbed, her rendition of 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain' is still quite moving.) The city of Salzburg is also a major character, and many times comes close to stealing the picture, so mesmerizing is its picturesque charm.
And then there's the remainder of the score that includes such identifiable and hummable tunes as 'Maria,' 'Sixteen Going on Seventeen,' 'Edelweiss,' 'The Lonely Goatherd,' and 'So Long, Farewell.' Coupled with the romantic story and abundance of glorious scenery, 'The Sound of Music' becomes one of the most captivating, family-friendly musicals ever to grace the screen, a film that merits its big canvas and fills it to perfection. Sure, it's a little saccharine; without a doubt, it's a tad schmaltzy. But every now and then that's just what the doctor orders, and this true-blue classic never fails to inject us with a healthy, rejuvenating dose of honest emotion, wonderful music, and impeccable artistry.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
Packaged in a standard Blu-ray plastic case and protected by a glossy slipcase, the 45th Anniversary Edition of 'The Sound of Music' contains three discs. The first houses the feature film in high definition, along with several supplements. The second disc contains additional special features, and the third disc is a DVD that includes a standard-def version of the film (with newly remastered picture and sound) and more extras. The full-motion menu takes a while to load, but is attractively presented, and no promotional material precedes it.
As a rule, musicals always demand strong transfers to capture all the pageantry, colorful costumes, and bold set pieces that so often distinguish them. But 'The Sound of Music,' with its extensive location shooting, adds an extra and critical wrinkle to the standard formula. With scenery that defines the word "breathtaking," and a host of bucolic and charming Old World backdrops, this film requires a top-flight effort, especially in high definition, and that's exactly what the folks at Fox have given us. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer ranks right up there with the genre's best with perfectly balanced color, contrast, and an astounding clarity that make 'The Sound of Music' more immediate and involving than ever before.
Shot in the era of cheap, single-strip color, 'The Sound of Music' had begun to fade over the years, but this glorious restoration brings back all the vibrancy, lushness, and warmth of the original film and preserves it for all time. From the first frames of the iconic opening sequence, we know we're in for a spectacular visual treat, and the transfer remains consistently sumptuous and eye-filling – without ever looking artificial – throughout the lengthy 174-minute running time. The green meadows of the alpine hills have never looked more inviting, with individual blades of grass easily discernible. Equally vibrant are the bright red accents of the Nazi swastikas, the colorful vegetables in the farmer's market, and the crystal blue waters of the mountain lakes. Skin tones can look a little ruddy at times, but how many Austrians don't possess a rugged, outdoorsy complexion?
Light grain remains intact, providing an exceptionally cozy film-like feel, and any temptation to over-push the colors has thankfully been kept at bay. As a result, a natural look pervades this effort that keeps the film as much in reality's realm as possible. Black levels are rich and deep – just look at the inky habits of the nuns – and whites remain bright without blooming. Shadow detail is excellent, and textures, such as Maria's wool jacket in the 'I Have Confidence in Me' segment, come through well. Close-ups are lovely, and any technical enhancements have been so carefully applied they escape notice. In addition, no banding or digital noise could be detected, even in the darkest scenes. Without question, this is one of the premier transfers for a musical picture, and one that will thrill the legions of faithful 'Sound of Music' fans worldwide. It doesn't get any better than this, folks. Terrific job, Fox!
'The Sound of Music' comes all decked out with a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that sounds terrific even on a 5.1 system like mine. From the opening whistling wind of the Austrian Alps to the sputtering engine noises of disabled Nazi vehicles, all the nuances of this large-scale musical come through with crisp distinction. Balance and dynamic range are superb, offering a full-bodied, immersive aural experience. Surround activity is subtle, almost imperceptible, and that works well for this type of entertainment. In fact, the track is so well mixed, there's a seamless quality to the audio that keeps us focused on the film and not the output of individual channels.
Of course, the songs are the real star of 'The Sound of Music,' and the instrumentals and vocals possess crystal clarity, filling the room with warm, lifelike tones. Julie Andrews' exquisite instrument has never sounded so pure and perfect; even her multi-octave jumps at the end of 'Do Re Mi' resist distortion, as do the final notes of Peggy Wood's 'Climb Ev'ry Mountain.' Each song bursts forth with marvelous fidelity, and solid bass frequencies enhance the musical presentation. Otherwise, the subwoofer stays pretty quiet, save for the thunderstorm that precedes and accompanies 'My Favorite Things.' Dialogue and lyrics are always well prioritized and easy to understand, and most pops, crackles, and other surface elements have been erased. I say "most,' because during the thunderstorm, several very noticeable instances of sonic breakup occurred that were more jarring than the thunderclaps themselves.
Despite that minor flaw, this a superior track that brings this movie to life like never before, and really emphasizes "the sound of music"…which is what this tuneful classic is really all about.
The amount of supplemental material is truly astounding, and includes previously released elements as well as material produced expressly for this Blu-ray release. Below are comprehensive reviews of every extra across all three discs.
The second commentary is a solo effort by director Robert Wise, whose sporadic remarks are consistently bookended by long stretches of isolated stereo music from the film's score and scene-specific sound effects. No dialogue or song vocals are heard, and the scoring doesn't always mirror what's being presented on screen, especially where musical numbers are concerned. It's a dry, often tedious track, as Wise doesn't go far enough in depth or share enough anecdotes to sufficiently maintain interest. He talks about the nuts and bolts of shooting, the locations, the weather, casting, and the differences between the stage play and film, as well as factual liberties screenwriter Ernest Lehman took with the lives of the Von Trapp family for dramatic and narrative purposes. While it's wonderful to have Wise document his experiences and hear his insights, he loses steam as the movie progresses, and the resulting gaps – filled with repetitive themes – drag out the track. If you only have the time or patience for a single commentary, I'd choose the one featuring Andrews.
The bulk of the supplements reside on this disc, which includes comprehensive featurettes and plenty of archival treasures.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein section kicks off with the clip-filled tribute, 'Rodgers and Hammerstein: The Sound of Their Music,' an 83-minute 1985 documentary hosted by the first lady of American musical theater, Mary Martin. Excerpts from all the film versions of R&H musicals are included, from 'Oklahoma!' to 'The Sound of Music,' along with first-hand reminiscences from such participants and creative influences as Gordon MacRae, Shirley Jones, Celeste Holm, Yul Brynner, and choreographer Agnes de Mille. Archival interviews with Rodgers and Hammerstein add an intimate touch to this celebration, and a highlight is Martin's chat with director Joshua Logan about the ins and outs of 'South Pacific.' Next up is the equally absorbing 1996 documentary, 'Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies,' which examines all the film adaptations of R&H stage hits, as well as the two versions of 'State Fair,' the only R&H musical written expressly for the screen. Shirley Jones, star of 'Oklahoma!' and 'Carousel,' hosts this 97-minute clipfest, with assists from Rita Moreno, Nancy Kwan, and Charmian Carr, who examine 'The King and I,' 'Flower Drum Song,' and 'The Sound of Music,' respectively. Though there's some overlap between the two documentaries, both are informative, well-produced, and entertaining.
The Audio Interviews section includes "direct from Salzburg" conversations with Andrews, Plummer, and Peggy Wood. Andrews talks about the rainy Austrian weather, the differences between the stage and screen versions of 'The Sound of Music,' working with children, and the new experience of making movies, while Plummer touches upon the allure of Salzburg, his transition from Broadway to Hollywood, the sparks between himself and Andrews, and the impact of location shooting. Wood, best known for playing the lead in the 'I Remember Mama' TV series in the 1950s, provides a lively interview, and reveals she was offered the same role in the original Broadway production, but turned it down. There's also a 1973 reissue interview with Andrews and Wise (by the same interviewer), in which Andrews shares insights about her casting, role, and the Austrian location. A Telegram from Daniel Truhitte allows the man who played Rolf to chronicle his audition, and Ernest Lehman: Master Storyteller provides a biographical sketch of the writer, along with extended audio outtakes from the 'Sound of Music: From Fact to Phenomenon' documentary in which Lehman discusses his experiences on the film. (Note: Strangely enough, on my particular disc, all the audio interviews end abruptly, sometimes in mid-sentence. Whether this is a glitch that's unique to my edition of 'The Sound of Music' or a universal problem, I can't say. But I played the interviews on two different Blu-ray players and encountered the same issues on both, which was frustrating, to say the least.)
A standard-def DVD includes the following:
'The Sound of Music' has always been a celebratory musical, but this three-disc Blu-ray edition gives all of us one more reason to celebrate and admire this wonderful, Oscar-winning film. The songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Austrian scenery, and the performances of Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and the seven Von Trapp children come alive like never before, and the romantic, heartwarming, and inspirational story feels more immediate as a result. Superb video, top-notch audio, and enough special features to turn everyone into walking 'Sound of Music' encyclopedias make this extra special package truly one of our favorite things. Without a doubt, this is a must-own disc, and one that will make a great gift during any season of the year.