SOUND OF MUSIC, THE – Blu-ray review

“The Sound of Music” is the most popular stage show in the world, with 500 performances produced annually in the U.S. alone. And the 1965 film version? How could it have been anything less than spectacular?

The music and lyrics were composed by the legendary Rodgers and Hammerstein, who collaborated on their first musical (“Oklahoma!”) in 1943 and what would turn out to be their last in 1959, when they finished the music for the Broadway production of “The Sound of Music.” It featured their most popular song–“My Favorite Things”–and one memorable tune after the other, like “Do-Re-Mi,” “The Sound of Music,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “Maria,” “The Lonely Goatherd,” and “Edelweiss,” a faux-Austrian folk song so authentic-sounding that people would later swear that they learned it as children.

The story also was strong: about a romance that develops between a widowed Austrian naval captain and the governess of his seven children, intercut with subplots about how they fled Nazi Germany and became the von Trapp Family Singers.

The screenplay was penned by frequent Oscar nominee Ernest Lehman (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “North by Northwest”), who was the perfect choice. Lehman had already written a romance where a girl of low station falls in love with a man higher up on the social ladder (“Sabrina,” 1954), and he had two musicals under his belt: “The King and I” (1956) and “West Side Story” (1961).

And Robert Wise, who won a Best Picture Oscar for “West Side Story,” was onboard to direct.

Then there was Julie Andrews, fresh from her Oscar-winning performance in “Mary Poppins,” a strong singer who would do wonders with the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs she was given. As Maria, the novitiate who just wasn’t cut out to be a nun, Andrews captivated audiences as much as she did Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer).

Throw in gorgeous location Austrian scenery and you have a musical that easily ranks among the very best. “The Sound of Music” won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Music, and Best Sound. I get goose bumps just listening to the Overture medley of R&H songs while the opening establishing aerial shots of Austria fill the screen.

And yes, “The Sound of Music” looks gorgeous on Blu-ray! The film was meticulously restored using a copy of the original 70mm Todd-AO camera negative and scanning it at 8000 lines. The result is a movie with more 3D depth, sharper edges (without edge enhancement) and more visible detail and textures. Tweed almost has a life of its own in 1080p.

The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also a big step up, with the songs never sounding better, especially the high notes. And the bonus features? Old features are combined with brand-new ones that are truly a fun mountain to climb. Without a doubt, the three-disc 45th Anniversary Blu-ray + DVD combo is the definitive version of “The Sound of Music,” and one of the best Blu-ray releases in 2010.

“The Sound of Music” is a family musical about a musical family–the von Trapps, who left Austria rather than have Captain von Trapp submit to service in the Nazi navy. In reality, they never fled in the dead of night, climbing over the mountain into Switzerland; they walked to the train station and booked passage to Italy, eventually landing in America. But the changes only add to the romance of a story that’s interesting and romantic to begin with. Funny, too. There’s plenty of humor to be had as Maria copes with initially incorrigible children (Charmian Carr, Heather Menzies, Nicholas Hammond, Duane Chase, Angela Cartwright, Debbie Turner, Kym Karath) and then helps their widowed father learn to love music again . . . and her. It’s a film that’s joyous and buoyant, a feel-good movie that’s by turns funny, musical, and dramatic.

And as John J. Puccio noted in his DVD review, it’s a good thing Plummer’s agent talked the snooty Shakespearian stage actor into trying his hand at a film role, because I can’t imagine anyone else as the slightly tyrannical but wholly human von Trapp. It’s one of the screen’s great love stories, with a “Casablanca” moment of its own as patriots sing a rousing and poignant song in the face of their Nazi occupiers.

All of which makes “The Sound of Music” one of my favorite things.

I’ve already mentioned that the meticulously restored transfer is wonderful, but a few more details: there is no evidence of edge enhancement, and no DNR used–which means that there’s still a slight layer of filmic grain, mostly in backgrounds, while figures in the middle distance and close-ups pop out in 3D style and have great detail and textures you can almost feel. It’s a fantastic-looking picture, presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.20:1 and brought to a 50GB disc using AVC/MPEG-4 tecnhology. It’s one of the best-looking catalog titles I’ve seen in Blu-ray, and one which rivals “The Searchers.” The folks at Fox are clearly proud of the restoration, as they should be, because included among the extras is a bonus feature on the process. And if you love this film, you’ll love the feature, because you get side-by-side before and after clips along with explanations that are detailed without being overly technical.

The English DTS-HD MA 7.1 featured soundtrack is also phenomenal, with perfect prioritization and mixing so that you never have to turn the volume up or down to hear or to save your eardrums. Mid-tones are just as pure-sounding as the high notes and low bass, and while the driver on your subwoofer won’t come on as much as it does for action films, it really does a nice job on ambient sounds so that you get a sense of a room’s volume or a floor’s texture as footsteps track across it. You hear the sound the moment you access classy new menu screens. It’s so pure. Additional audio options are Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, French DTS 5.1, and an English 4.0 Dolby Surround (the original), with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.

Two versions are available, one of them a Digibook from Target which contains the exact same three discs but with Digibook packaging instead of blue jewel case and slipcase. The upside of the Target special is that Digibooks are cool, and this 24-pager is well done. But the discs are tucked into cardboard, and the fit isn’t very tight. So while you don’t worry about scratches happening as you take them in or out, at least one disc is prone to falling out.

This is one time where I’d recommend the “factory” release, because it comes in a standard-size Blu-ray case with one plastic “page” that holds two of the discs, while the third snaps onto a plastic holder on the back inside cover.

Disc One features the film on Blu-ray with “Your Favorite Things” as an option to watch. When you choose this option, a blue menu bar comes onto the screen just under the 2.20:1 image, and you can choose one or more of the options either before you press play or during playback. “Making Music: A Journey in Images” is a picture-in-picture track that’s displayed in the upper right-hand corner of the screen in a rather large rectangle. It’s mostly drawings and storyboard matter that’s included here. A “Sing-Along Experience” puts yellow words to the songs in the same font style as the title credits, and those appear bottom center. Then there’s “Many a Thing to Know,” a trivia track that offers general information, and my favorite, “Where Was It Filmed?,” which is a multiple choice quiz (top left) on the locations that you can take as the movie plays. You can play this with one or all functions, but you’d better have seen the film before, because the top-right box is especially large and hides too much of the screen. Another problem is that if you close out of this watching mode or change your mind and want to re-enter it, you have to use the pop-up menu and it takes quite a while to reload.

Also on Disc One is “Music Machine,” which allows you to access songs in the film and play one or play all. “Sing-Along” does the songs with lyrics, so it feels redundant. Finally, there are two commentary tracks, one with Wise that seems to be a carry-over from the previous DVD release, and a newer one with Andrews and “friends.” Wise disappears for long stretches, and there are plenty of gaps in the Andrews track as well. Of the two, Andrews’ is the warmer commentary, with more anecdotes. Wise sticks to business and talks about shots, mostly.

I loved “Your Favorite Things,” but a separate Blu-ray disc of features is also pretty special. The features are divided into five categories: Musical Stages, A City of Song, Vintage Programs, Rare Treasures, and Publicity.

Most of the substantial features are in the Musical Stages section, which is a reproduction of the inside of the von Trapp family home at the Fox soundstage. There are three views, which, like the “I Spy” game for kids, yield up nuggets when you move around the room in search of bonus features. Once you’ve exhausted the features on one view of the room you have two more to access. Personally, I found it tedious getting my features this way, but thankfully Fox included an option for impatient people and non-game players who just want to read a menu and choose a feature from it. That option is located in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen.

The first section contains 24 short features, all in 1080i HD, one for each song giving background and such, some about the von Trapp family, and others about the music:

“Maria in the 21st Century” (6:52), about all the variations since Broadway
“Restoring a Classic: Bloom and Grow Forever” (5:44), about the restorationl process
“After the Escape” (5:50), about the real von Trapp’s journey to America
“R&H: Partnership at Its Peak” (3:43), a poignant and informative extra
“Shaping the Story” (4:50) tells how the first script ended at Ellis Island
“The von Trapps today” (5:48) shows the family’s lodge in Vermont
“Stage vs. Screen” (3:12) zeroes in on differences
“Maria and the Musical” (5:06) shows the real Maria on set
“Cutting Room Floor” (2:50) treats three songs from the play that didn’t make the film
“A Generous Heart” (3:54) is a feature on the next generation’s Maria
“Final Dream: O.H. Remembered” (5:51) is a tribute to Hammerstein
“Stories from Broadway” (4:19) covers the 50th anniversary of the Broadway opening
“Restoring a Classic: A Glorious Sound” (5:31) is as it sounds

The section for A City of Song uses that same principle of three views of a scene to present material on the locations used in the film. Fans will LOVE this feature, because all of the filming sites are identified. For each one of these we get from 1-3 minutes of film clips, photos, and trivia cards (words):

“Mellweg: Maria’s Mountain”
“Nonnberg: Maria’s Abbey”
“Residenzplatz: Scenes of Joy and Sorrow”
“Siegmundplatz: The Horse Pond”
“von Trapp Villa: A Place of Harmony”
“Frohnburg: A Façade Fit for Hollywood”
“Gazebo: A New Home at Hellbrunn”
“Mozartsteg: Bridge to the Past”
“Werfen: Planning a Picnic”
“Winkler Terrace: The Ultimate View”
“Mirabell Gardens: Do-Re-Mi-rabell”
“Leopoldskron: Story of a Lake”
“Salzburg Marionette Theatre: Pulling Strings”
“Mondsee Cathedral: A Marriage of Fact and Fiction”
“Rock Riding School: Staging a Festival”
“St. Peter’s Cemetery: Safe Haven”
“Rossfeld: A Dangerous Escape”
“The Sound of Music Tour: A Living Story”

Collectively, they provide anyone thinking of going to Salzburg with a guide to the movie sites, and allow those who may never get there the chance to experience these places vicariously.

The Vintage Programs section is where you’ll find an exhausting amount of bonus features carried over from previous DVD releases, including the 90-minute “From Fact to Phenomenon” and the hour-long “My Favorite Things: Julie Andrews Remembers,” along with two 80-minute features on the composers, and shorter features on the kids, Salzburg (another great tour), and four audio interviews with Wise, Andrews, Daniel Truhitte, and Ernest Lehman.

Rare Treasures includes a fun appearance by Maria von Trapp on “The Julie Andrews Hour,” close to a half-hour of screen tests, and a comedy skit, “Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall: The Pratt Family Singers.” Publicity galleries are also here, along with the intro Andrews made for the 40th anniversary DVD.

Finally, the Publicity section has a fun (but soundless) clip of the Academy Awards, along with various trailers, teasers, TV and radio spots.

As I said, it’s an exhaustive amount of material, and fans have to be pleased that there’s so much carry-over from the DVD releases and so much new material that’s “interactive.”

Bottom Line:
“The Sound of Music” is one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best scores, and that’s saying something. It’s a warm and wonderful movie that has “timeless” written all over it. And this Blu-ray combo is everything fans could have hoped for. I don’t give many movies perfect scores, but it’s tough to find fault with anything on this release.