Not that you would think The Sound of Music is in need of a defense. Accounting for inflation, it is still the third biggest box office success of all time and is still nothing short of a beloved phenomenon in terms of popularity, tourism (Salzburg does very well in this department), parodies, soundtrack, sing-alongs; it’s beloved around the world. So my defense is really a tick-tacky defense; more of a defense against standard explanations of the film’s appeal.
I had always known in the back of my mind that The Sound of Music was not particularly critically acclaimed, but reading Tom Santopietro’s The Sound of Music Story – a thorough exploration of all things Sound of Music, from the real story of Maria von Trapp to the musical to the making of the film to brief biographies of all the people involved in the film to the film’s afterlife and cultural importance – I realized that critics did not just dislike the film when it was initially released; they hated it. It was almost personal. There was grand talk about how the film actually set movie making back – a artistic medium supposedly finally coming into maturity. The acting was dismissed as on par with high schoolers, the story labeled as nauseatingly sweet, an offense to any intelligent mind. I was a little surprised. Dismissal is one thing, but outright hostility?
Critical opinion has definitely grown more measured since then. But even now, even from Santopietro, who seems to love the movie, the common and rather condescending explanation for the film’s popularity is that it is an elaborate form of wish-fulfillment. People can escape into a perfect world for three hours and secretly wish that the von Trapp family was their family, that our world was as simple as their world, that good and evil was so clearly delineated in life as it is in the film. Santopietro especially emphasizes people’s desire for their family to be like the von Trapp’s family as seen in the film.
This insistence that The Sound of Music is one of the most effective forms of escapism seems simplistic. All movies, even movies that are critically acclaimed, movies with violence, with unhappy endings, with cynicism and irony, are a form of escapism. It is not real life, your life, my life, anybody’s life, and is therefore a safe place to visit.
But also, the insistence that The Sound of Music is escapism doesn’t ring true with my own life. In looking back, I was a happy child with a happy family and I loved The Sound of Music. There was no wish-fulfillment going on, no desire for a simpler time, for happily-ever afters, nannies to sweep in and set everything right. The biggest drama in my life was preparing for a dance or piano recital and my greatest desire was for my parents to buy an RV (I liked the idea of the bathroom being right there with you; no rest stops or uncomfortable long waits for rest stops to appear).
The film, then, cannot be dismissed as escapism. That implies that the film is essentially a lie, an untruth, a fantasy that people indulge in. But The Sound of Music resonates with so many people because it actually expresses genuine emotions.The story may not be reality, but the emotion is (though, actually, much of the story did really happen).
For me, music has always represented something inarticulate within myself. I have tried, multiple times, to express in words what I feel with music and it can’t be done, because they’re not precise emotions. I don’t love musicals because I want to get into their world; I love them because they express something I feel in my own….at least in certain moments And there is a catharsis, a relief, a joint celebration and affirmation of those feelings in watching a musical (well…some musicals) that gives voice to those emotions. It’s like when you hear somebody say something you agree with, but have never heard anyone else say before. The relief is enormous.
But The Sound of Music in particular gives expression to that particular uplift I cannot describe: an emotional response to life, the joy of being alive, of being a part of this world, of responding to the beauty of nature, of responding to the love of people, of going always forward, of those moments of optimism…I’m gushing. This not really a defense of the movie, more like an alternate or supplemental explanation for its enduring appeal. But I do get frustrated to hear The Sound of Music perpetually referred to as wish-fulfillment. It does not take into account that for many people, the film is not a fantasy. Via song, it is actually expressing an emotional reality, a genuine, human response to life that people have – not constantly – but definitely real.