The Hills Are Alive – The Sound of Music at 50 and Movie Musicals Today

Sound of Music

Tastes in movies and music can often interconnect, but at other times they very much diverge.  For many people, like myself, a love of music can even stem from a love of movies. And though there are many films that put the music front and center in a musical format, most of my favorite pieces of music actually originate from non-musical films, as evidenced in my recent top ten list.  But, there are some commendable movie musicals out there as well, and one that particularly stands out in my mind is the 1965 Best Picture winner, The Sound of Music.  Though it originated on the stage, I’m sure that for most people the first thing they think about when hear that title wI’ll be this film, and the image above is probably what pops into their minds immediately.  When it first released into theaters, it became an instant phenomenon at the box office, and is still one of the highest grossing movies of all time when adjusted for inflation. It helped to save the troubled 20th Century Fox studio after the financial ruin brought on by the Cleopatra (1963) production, and it has gone to perform well for many decades thereafter. Now in 2015, it has hit a major milestone by celebrating its 50th anniversary and once again the movie has been given a new focus, highlighting it for a new generation of film goers. And all this lavish attention is justly deserved. Though there could be an argument made for the brilliance of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain or 1961’s West Side Story (both great on their own), in my opinion The Sound of Music is the greatest movie musical of all time. For one thing, there is no other musical that uses the film medium to its highest advantage and what it also does is highlight what’s wrong with most movie musicals made today.

What makes The Sound of Music stand out so much from other musicals is in it’s grandiosity. When director Robert Wise set out to adapt this story from the stage to the screen, he made sure to remove all connections to the theater and bring the production outdoors. This was an unusual move at the time, because most productions of musicals stayed indoors within the studio soundstages, where all the elements such as lighting could be tightly controlled. In fact, some of the most famous musicals at the time like 1964’s My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins were both filmed entirely indoors on soundstages in Hollywood, despite their turn of the century English setting.  Wise, however, chose instead to film The Sound of Music on location in Salzburg, Austria; the authentic setting of the real life story of the Von Trapp family.  By doing so, he made this movie look and feel bigger than any other musical adaptation up to that point. The movie has a free and open feel to it, and any notion that this story originated on the stage is quickly forgotten.  Indeed this was a story that needed the epic treatment.  It just makes sense for actress Julie Andrews to be out in the backdrop of the majestic Alps when she sings the song “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music.”  Robert Wise probably saw the value in shooting on location when he shot the opening number for West Side Story on the streets of New York City.  Though it was just for that opening sequence, I’m sure that Wise realized then that to make a movie musical stand out, you need to shoot it like an epic and less like a stage production, which is a lesson put into brilliant practice in Sound of Music.  Because of this, Music is both groundbreaking as well as entertaining, and is a benchmark in the whole history of movie musicals.

Musicals have been a part of cinema ever since the introduction of sound to the medium. In fact, it could be said that the very first “talkie,” 1927’s The Jazz Singer, is a musical, considering all the sound parts are the musical numbers sung by star Al Jolson.  When talking pictures became the norm, musicals were often the most popular genre for audiences.  No other genre showed off the new technology better, so it was just natural for the studios to exploit it as much as possible. The musical was such a popular medium at the time that even the Oscars took notice, naming 1929’s The Broadway Melody as their second ever choice for Best Picture.   During the Depression years, the musicals became an escape for a disenfranciesed populace, with stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple as the highlights of the period.  The war years saw a downturn of the movie musical, as the medium became more a propaganda tool, with movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).  The Golden Age of the epics in 50’s and 60’s helped to lay the groundwork for the grand reemergence of the movie musical in this era and it reached its zenith with The Sound of Music, though many other widescreen productions like Oklahoma (1957), The King and I (1956) and of course My Fair Lady were also standouts.  That era, however, came to an end after high profile flops like Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Hello Dolly (1969) crashed hard due to changing tastes in the market. The 70’s brought us more revisionist takes on the musical format with movies like Cabaret (1972) and Grease (1978).  And then came a twenty year period in the 80’s and 90’s when the movie musical all but disappeared, being relegated mostly to animated films.

It wasn’t until 2001’s Moulin Rouge, directed by Baz Luhrrman, that the movie musical came back in a big way.  Now, it’s not only common to see musicals on the big screen today, but most of them actually are profitable.  The downside of this however is that even though the genre has seen a resurgence, most of the newer adaptations are not quite up to the standards of their predecessors. There have been a couple standouts, but their success usually is bookended by a lot of copycats and wannabes. Case in point, the success of 2002’s Chicago.  The movie adaptation of the long running Broadway musical cemented the return of the musical genre to the big screen and became the first musical since 1968’s Oliver to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  But, the success of that movie led to the start of many other likeminded productions that aspire to be like Chicago, but fall well short.  This is most evident in splashy productions of Broadway musicals that try to recapture Chicago’s disjointed and gritty atmosphere in contrast to what the musical actually requires in order to shine on the screen and fails; seen clearly in awful adaptations like 2005’s Rent or 2009’s Nine. Although it is nice to see the technique of location shooting take hold in the musical genre since The Sound of Music, it has not matched the grandiosity and visual flair that that classic managed to capture.  Stylistically, something has been lost over the years, and the foundation we have right now is built less around the wow factor that the big screen can give and more around how well the movie plays on the TV screen in the confines of home entertainment, of which Chicago managed to fulfill well enough.

Though some musicals do alright with a smaller scale, I do think that there is something lost in this new trend when translating a musical to the cinema.  In particular, I think that some of the epic grandeur has been lost over the years, and that’s particularly evident in musical adaptations that call for epic visuals.  For example, the big screen adaptation of the hit Broadway show Les Miserables (2012).  Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel, Les Miz (as it is most often called) is widely considered to be the grandest, and most epic musical ever put on the stage, becoming one of the most popular stage musicals since its 1987 premiere.  Given that reputation, you would expect this musical to be given the lavish Sound of Music treatment, shot on location in France with grand, sweeping widescreen visuals.  But, when Universal Stuidos put the movie into production, they chose to give it to director Tom Hooper, a man who is capable at directing period films ( like his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech) but on a much smaller scale. This unfortunately led to the exact opposite approach to visualizing the musical than what it should have been.  Instead of using epic scale shots in eye-catching locations, Hooper instead shot the film mostly in tight and constrained close-ups of the actors without drawing attention to the period details which are important to the story.  It in turn minimaizes a story that should have otherwise have been grand in scale. While not entirely a disaster, I do see Les Miz as a missed opportunity, where the visual presentation is a letdown and one where it was the director who was ultimately miscast.  It makes me wonder what would have happened if the production was given over to a more visual director on the level of say Ridley Scott. At least he would’ve gotten a more interesting performance out of Russell Crowe in the film.

But aside from diminishing returns in the visual department, there is also the change in how movie musicals are staged that unfortunately has distanced itself from some of the cinematic magic from the Sound of Music days.  In particular, the influence of MTV and its music videos has produced a negative impact on the genre. While most musical numbers flowed naturally as part of the storyline in the past, today those same numbers contrast sharply with the rest of the film because they are staged and edited in the music video fashion.  It might be as a result of how the filmmakers have been influenced by this era of music videos we’ve seen in recent years, and indeed many filmmakers today got their start directing music videos.  But, most of them should understand that what works in a 7 minute video format won’t translate as well into a two hour long narrative. This is most jarring in what has become known as the “jukebox” musical, where pop songs are forced into a narrative in place of original content.  With pop songs combined with music video filmmaking, you get movie musicals that don’t stand well enough on their own as a narrative, and more or less just become prententious exercises in editing to music; like with 2007’s Across the Universe or 2008’s Mamma Mia.  But what can be even worse is when a production takes an already established musical and completely changes the purpose and meaning while only cherry-picking the songs they want to appeal to what they think modern audiences like. This happened last year with the disastrous remake of Annie, where most of the songs and original book were jettisoned in favor of a “modern” rewrite that just reuses only the popular songs without the context. Essentially, they turned what was an already well-established musical, and turned it into a “jukebox” musical for their own underwhelming narrative.  This is a particularly negative aspect of this new, music video infused era of movie musicals.

That’s not to say that the genre is devoid of any good examples from recent years. Sometimes it just all comes down to having the right team and vision in place. I for one saw the 2007 adaptation of Sweeny Todd to be a great success. For a film adaptation of a musical based around the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, you needed a filmmaker who could capture the Gothic nature of that story perfectly while still maintaining the musical’s macabre sense of humor; and no one was better suited for the job than Tim Burton. Burton not only gave the film the Gothic look that it needed, but he also did a good job of restraining himself in the production as well. It doesn’t go too over the top, but still feels cinematic enough to help lift the material to work on the big screen. Another great film adaptation of a Broadway musical in recent years was 2006’s Dreamgirls.  While the musical is very pop music infused, it’s meant to be that way by design, chronicling the rise of Motown style music in American culture during the 60’s and 70’s. In adapting the musical for the big screen, director Bill Condon took the exact right approach, shooting the musical in the same way you would make a biopic; an approach that compliments the story and the music perfectly and doesn’t feel unnatural.  In addition, both of these musicals also benefited from casting actors who could actually hold a tune, with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter doing justice to Sondheim’s complicated melodies, and Beyoncé and Jamie Foxx bringing a lot of Motown soul into their selective songs.  A well matched vision and a capable cast makes all the difference in the end.  Other times you’ll just end up with movies like The Phantom of the Opera (2004) which has the right director, but the wrong cast, or Into the Woods (2014) with the right cast but wrong director. Or Les Miserables, where everything is wrong.

Despite all the problems that have plagued movie musicals in recent years, it has thankfully not diminished the power that The Sound of Music still holds.  And amazingly, 50 years later the movie still remains timeless.  Julie Andrews singing voice is still out-of-this-world and her performance is perfectly balanced with Christopher Plummer’s exceptionally grounded work as Captain Von Trapp. But the real star is Robert Wise’s direction, which takes most of the production out into the real world and shows off the stunning Salzburg locations in all its widescreen glory. I may not be a musical fan, but I am a fan of epic movies, and The Sound of Music fits the definition of the word “epic” in every single frame.  My hope is that this movie continues to remain influential in the musical genre.  For one thing, I’d like to see a return to this kind of epic filmmaking in musicals and a departure away from the MTV influence that we see mostly used today.  The phrase “they don’t make them like they used to,” could easily apply to the musicals of The Sound of Music’s era, and I think it’s about time that the movie musical could use a refresher.  A lot can be improved upon, but when the musical genre works on the big screen, it can become the highest form of cinematic art, and The Sound of Music will always continue to stand as one of its absolute masterpieces.