Words: Andrea Zanin
Illustration: Fleur Beech

In 1965, Vietnam was a wartime hotspot, South Africa was doing Apartheid, warnings appeared on cigarette packs, skateboards were in, women’s skirts got shorter, men’s hair got longer, the Beatles released four albums and Julie Andrews cantillated about lonely goatherds, rain drops on roses and tea with jam and bread in a film that won five Oscars including Best Picture. Fifty years have gone by and the world is an entirely different, more cynical beast and yet it remembers the story of the family that sung itself to freedom. The story of a postulant turned governess who follows her heart, falls in love and escapes some Nazis has percolated five decades’ worth of brain space, culminating in a semicentennial musical performance by pop provocateur Lady Gaga at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. There was no meat dress, million-inch heels or pantomime extravaganza hiding backstage; Gaga played it straight – exactly how Julie Andrews would have sung had her singing voice not been ruined by throat surgery eighteen years ago. And the audience, a sucker for a hefty dose of sentiment, went wild.

When the film version of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical The Sound of Music was released all those years ago, it was criticised for being a sappy pile of saccharine slush, embellished with a desperate dose of Hollywood romanticism. The original Maria Von Trapp (because both play and film are based on an actual family of singers) wrote a book in which she describes her marriage to George von Trapp, who did not use a whistle and was in fact a charming man and devoted father, as a relationship of convenience. His children, who Maria loved, needed a mother and she needed the security of a family. Their house was also not as big and they didn’t cross any mountains to elude Hitler and his posse but they were singers and they did escape. Johannes von Trapp, the youngest son of George and Maria, calls the Robert Wise’s film affair a “Hollywood version of the Broadway version of the German film version of the book that my mother wrote.”

When Julie Andrews sang “My heart wants to sing every song it hears”, she had not yet been accosted by the delicious lyrical thrashing of Johnny Rotten or Kurt Cobain

Hollywood turned Maria’s truth into something else because Hollywood knows what people want. In a world that was (and still is) filled with political turmoil and social disruption, who wants to hear a story about a plain-looking battleaxe-type who loved some children, married their father and went to live in America. Life is harsh and sometimes we need it to be softened by pretty people and grand villas. Sometimes we want to be in a place where suitors woo by song and quaint village sing-alongs are the natural course of things.

Of course when Julie Andrews stood on that mountain top and sang “My heart wants to sing every song it hears”, she had not yet been accosted by the delicious lyrical thrashing of vocalists like Johnny Rotten, Ozzy Osbourne, Kurt Cobain or Corey Taylor – not quite the laughing brooks, sighing chimes or singing larks mentioned in the song – but let’s take her point as she meant it; music, like love, food and fornication saturates the soul. No matter where your cool is at, whatever chord captures your imagination, music is a way in. Marilyn Manson said that “Music is the strongest form of magic” and Julie Andrews in the guise of Fraulein Maria certainly hocus-pocused not only Captain von Trapp (played by a very dashing Christopher Plummer) and his seven children into emotions of ardour but also an earth of people; generations’ worth.

There’s a reason that Rodgers and Hammerstein chose to name their play The Sound of Music and not Children Dressed in Curtains, Blonde Baroness meets Ambitious Educator or Austria Against Anschluss; because although all these things are part and parcel of the von Trapp family adventure, at its core, the story is about music and its ability to express humanity. The Sound of Music is like a really great, really annoying, pop song – not only do you remember every word and every nuance but you remember what you were doing when it was playing because the song is more than about just the song; it’s about context. Whether you love the film or you’d rather saw off your ears and bolt them to the bottom of the Titanic than listen to ‘Do-Re-Mi’ or ‘Edelweiss’, is beside the point. The thing is this: the reason you’d rather fill your ears with sea anemone than the sound of Dame Julie is because you have a story… perhaps your gran made you watch her favourite film only seven million times or your mum had the tape (Google it) and made you sing it on road trips, so your childhood is saturated with antiquated sounds that you’d rather forget. Everyone has a story. And yet if you allow yourself to admit it; you’ll realise that you love the film for the memories it has given you, even if you have spent the last twenty years mocking it with unparalleled impetuosity.

Sometimes our favourite films, the ones that transcend both time and generation, aren’t the ones that rock the screens at Cannes or Sun Dance with their filmic devices and complex characters; sometimes they’re the ones that we like, just because we do; because they remind us of our mums and our grannies. Like an ABBA song or home-made soup or bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens; the things that will cross our minds from time to time as we remember our own stories and are grateful for those who filled them with music.

More in Regulars