I was sitting in a job interview once, discussing film and theater, when I mentioned something about Gene Kelly dancing in puddles, and the camera pulling back as the music swelled and it was just– “Transcendence,” one of the interviewers said. Yes. That’s exactly what it was.
Music has the ability to express more than words, which is compounded by performance and the power of pictures. So if music is full of emotional content, a film musical is emotion squared. I could have picked a dozen musical films that influenced me, I grew up on Rogers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern. My mother knew and loved them all. I saw the great MGM’s like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Brigadoon, plus early musicals like Top Hat and later greats like Hello, Dolly with everything in between. But the film I chose for the Decalist is the one my brother and I spent an entire summer watching. That’s not an exaggeration. We watched The Sound of Music every day for an entire summer. And it never got old.
The American film musical started with “backstage” stories like The Jazz Singer, Dames,
and Strike Up the Band. But the integration of song and story really took form in the early Ginger and Fred films. In Top Hat, as critics like Richard Dyer have noted, Fred Astaire begins to walk in rhythm. Then music plays. Then he speaks in rhythm, and slowly begins to dance and sing. The “integrated musical” makes the song a part of the story, and a part of the diagetic reality. When we watch musicals where the characters suddenly sing, we assume this is normal in their world. Astaire’s tactic made this action make sense. (When one watches West Side Story it is perhaps a bit more necessary to suspend one’s disbelief. But perhaps that is because we have been conditioned to do so.)
To Transcend is to rise above, to defy gravity, to overcome. Kelly’s moment in the rain is the perfect musical embodiment of this idea. The musical is not only a world where people can freely express themselves in song and dance, but also one which tends to end eternally with full resolution and happiness. Romantic comedies become musicals by simply adding songs (therefore “The Dueling Cavalier” becomes “The Dancing Cavalier” in Kelly’s masterpiece). The resolutions of musicals are not advanced plot negotiations. Often they are simple resolutions of misunderstandings. (See all Fred and Ginger pictures. And all Mickey and Judy pictures. And those with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.) The endings border on the proverbial “deus ex machina.”
Both the opening and closing shots of The Sound of Music are arial shots of the film’s protagonist(s) on top of mountains. While the ending is happy (the family escapes the Nazis together), it is happy without them having reached their final destination. The real Trapp family built a palacial farm in Vermont, their own new world estate, from which they travelled around the US singing. The earned happy ending of the film is on the way to their new life. It’s in the midst of the journey, near the heavens, on an emotional mountaintop. The closing is full of divine intervention, so the parting shots from “God’s eye view” are appropriate, especially considering Maria’s background and sensibility. In fact, the entire film is steeped in religious symbolism and setting.
For the two people on the face of the Earth who have not seen the film, The Sound of Music is based on the real-life account of Maria Trapp, a novice at Nonnberg Abbey who goes to live with a large Austrian family as a governess, and ends up being their mother and choir director. That Maria (always a religious name. It doesn’t matter that it was the real person’s name. When a person connected with a nunnery is named for the Virgin Mary, it’s going to mean something) is a nun is one thing. That she’s not a very good nun (she doesn’t follow the rules) but an unconventionally good governess/mother/speaker (singer?) of the truth is another. That she is the kind of person whose innocence and charm cannot help but affect those around her is simply divine. Maria VonTrapp is a virgin mother for a modern age. She is not the mother of Christ, but the mother of every kid who watched the film and wanted or knew what it was to have someone who played with you, encouraged you, and dressed you up in drapes. Maria is a Mary Poppins who would love to have tea on the ceiling.
It’s the musical expression of joy that moves her, and is her hallmark. Maria begins the film in the open air cathedral of the alps expressing her joy. She is prey to the rules of the church, which she continually fails to uphold (in other words, she is human), but her reverend mother sees that this is simply because God’s plan for Maria is not the church, but the home. The home happens to be a palatial Austrian country estate inhabited by Christopher Plummer and an array of musically gifted children. Bound by duty to the will of God, Maria develops relationships with the family. When they become complicated she retreats to the church, but God’s plan is not for her to hide, but to go out and scale mountains. In other words, the church is her refuge, her preparation for life. And God’s will is for her new family.
Maria is drawn to the church because she hears the nun’s singing. She leaves because she is the person who cannot help singing when she is not supposed to. Again, the expression of song, indicative of all musicals, is the expression of emotion. It’s also the experience of something powerful. When I was a Madrigal singer in college, I stood around the choir room with 12 other people three times a week singing 8 part harmony. And each of us knew that hour of rehearsal was the highlight of our day. Music’s emotive power is incredible to hear, but almost magical when you are a part of it. The Sound of Music is watching people create music. (This, by the way, is why Sound of Music singalong screenings are so popular. It is one of my life’s ambitions to attend one.) Something happens when people sing together. It happens at concerts, church services, and in countless cars. (Don’t think other people aren’t watching. I am. And laughing.)
We all seek transcendence. We want to defy emotional gravity (Wickedly, when possible). Music is one of the key ways we do this. We have access do something divine when we experience music. In every frame of The Sound of Music we feel that transcendence. We see joy. We feel love. It is embodied in the settings, the story, the characters, and the very shots. And for the same reason there are some songs I could sing every day, The Sound of Music is a film we can revisit time and time again. That it was based on a real life (the plot very loosely), and filmed in a realistic way with often integrated music (or with excusable reasons for diagetic singing) means that the audience can believe this transcendence and joy is possible. And who is to say it isn’t?