If there’s one thing that I learned from seeing The Sound of Music on the big screen last night, it’s that I want to see all my favorite classic films in a movie theatre at least once in my life. I’ve seen the movie many, many times – too many to count. But seeing this newly remastered, restored digital version of the film I was able to pick up on nuances and minutiae that were hitherto lost on me. The 1965 classic was shot in the now-defunct 70mm widescreen process Todd-AO, introduced ten years earlier with Oklahoma! It’s one of the most impressive of the large format processes, with a visual crispness I fail to see in Super Panavision 70 or Super Technirama 70. (The anamorphic MGM Camera 65/Ultra Panavision 70 is stunning for its unbelievably wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1). In effect, the pan-and-scan presentations on TV and VHS were depriving audiences of the full audio and visual impact of the film (the same goes for all movies cropped for home video release).
However, it took a while to get to the film itself. While the advertised start time was 6:30, there was literally a full half hour of advertising from presenter NCM Fathom Events, which started bringing about some early audience participation as our collective patience grew thinner and thinner. It’s great that Fathom brings so many live events into movie theatres, but they didn’t have to spend that much time telling us about themselves! My father started muttering “Is this thing ever going to start?”
This was actually the first time I’ve ever gone to the movies with my father. He’s not one for theatre or film, really, but The Sound of Music is one of his favorite things. I’m not entirely sure whether it’s an interest in Julie Andrews, the whole nuns against the Nazis angle or that it contains “Edelweiss,” one of his favorite songs, but every year like clockwork he’d be watching. Now, my father also likes to be a vocal participant and will whisper observations to you even if you’re in church. Needless to say, I had my own secondary audio track to my right as he made whimsically wry commentary about on screen events and pointing out to me places he’d been on our trip to Austria (as though I hadn’t gone). He seemed even more interested in the screening than I did!
Finally, the lights went down and the screen came up on a brand new documentary “I’ll Sing Once More” featuring interviews about the show/film’s legacy as well as the Blu-ray upgrade. The new short is narrated by Rebecca Luker, who starred in the 1998 Broadway revival as well as Laura Benanti, who was Luker’s understudy and replacement (and bears an striking resemblance to young Charmian Carr). Bert Fink, from the R&H Organization talks a great deal about the show’s cultural impact. 20th Century Fox’s archival guru Schawn Belston gives an insightful analysis on the nuts and bolts of digital restoration for the upcoming Blu-Ray.
Finally, 45 minutes after the houselights went down, the silent 20th Century Fox logo appeared. In an instant we were soaring over Austria, as the sounds of mountain winds gave way to the underscoring slowly building to that iconic shot of Julie Andrews twirling on the hilltop. The visual image was staggering, particularly the aerial shot of the MCS70 camera panning around the side of the mountain, revealing the glorious Austrian landscape. Within those moments, I knew how much more it meant to see the film how it was originally presented in its large format, big screen glory.
I’m not one for the sing-along experience, so even though I knew what sort of evening we were in for I was still jarred at seeing the lyrics projected on the screen as Julie Andrews started singing. It was something that proved more distracting for me personally – I know the score and its lyrics well enough where I didn’t need the help. But at least they’ve done away with the idea of the Mitch Miller bouncing ball. There wasn’t much singing going on though. There were 15 of us in the large movie house, spread out all over the place. After “Maria,” a daring gentleman called on us to get involved and we did through some of the more genial crowd pleasers (if I had known we were going to be singing, I’d have done a warm up!) but we petered out as the film got more serious. I guess he gave up on all of us, as he left as the wedding commenced. During the Festival sequence while the von Trapps sang the “Do-Re-Mi” reprise, the lyric “tea with jam and bread” and variations thereof appeared so many times we burst out laughing. (Though even 24 hours later, I still can’t get it out of my head).
I started paying closer attention to the visual detail. Even the letters in the opening credits sequence looked clearer and more defined than I’d ever noticed before. In the documentary they talked about blades of grass and clarity of fabric. Now I was seeing such detail in all elements: the wall-paper in the Mother Abbess’ office, the texture of Maria’s habit, beads of water on the actor’s faces. Also, the combination of the big screen presentation and the glorious digital imagery brought out subtleties I’d never seen before, especially evident in Eleanor Parker‘s and Peggy Wood‘s brilliant supporting performances. Until last night I thought the cemetery was wall to wall concrete. With the new print I realized that it’s actually a dirt floor, complete with footprints! Every location shot was especially vivid with color and detail, looking better than I’ve ever seen it before. As for the sound, I was able to hear every single sound effect like footsteps on the pavement and the Irwin Kostal orchestrations sounded richer and fuller than I’d ever heard before.
As for big screen reissues of classic films, I’m all for it. Many of the films I have loved I have never seen on a screen larger than 27 inches. If each and everyone could be brought back like this, I know I’d be there. There is one more screening for next Tuesday, October 26 at 6:30. You can buy your tickets online; it doesn’t matter if you’re late, the movie itself doesn’t start until 7:15. The Blu-ray edition will be out November 2.