Thanks to The Sound of Music, millions of people around the world are familiar with the von Trapp family saga. (They probably have the second most popular Austrian name among movie fans, behind some guy named Schwarzenegger.) Given that The Sound of Music is one of the most popular movies of all time, any filmmaker would be wise to offer a fresh perspective in telling a von Trapp story. Enter The von Trapp Family: A Life of Music, which puts eldest von Trapp daughter Liesl Agathe in the center of the action.
“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start…”
Actually, A Life in Music opens with a considerable leap forward. We meet Agathe (Rosemary Harris) as an older woman spending Christmas Eve with her family. When her niece Kirsty (Lauryn Canny) runs away because she doesn’t want to spend the holidays with her father and his new wife, Agathe volunteers to bring her back. Instead of strong-arming or pleading with Kirsty to return, Agathe decides to regale her with the tale of the time she decided to run away from her own dad.
The action flashes back to a 6 year old Agathe, who vows never to sing again after the death of her sickly mother. The story then shifts to a time and place that should be pretty familiar to Sound of Music fans. Following the death of his wife, Georg von Trapp (Matthew Macfadyen) — a decorated World War I hero — moves his family to Salzburg, an Austrian city on the German border. Agathe (now 16
going on 17, and played by Eliza Bennett) is the de facto head of the household as Capt. von Trapp struggles to shield the family from their increasingly dire financial circumstance. As a result, Agathe is offended when her father brings in a pretty young governess named Maria (Yvonne Catterfeld) to essentially do all the things Agathe is already doing. Agathe’s hostility toward Maria intensifies once it becomes obvious that Capt. von Trapp and Maria have fallen in love.
Of course, that particular love story was already famously told in The Sound of Music, which was based on Maria von Trapp’s memoir “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.” Meanwhile, A Life of Music is based on Agathe von Trapp’s own memoir, “Memories Before and After The Sound of Music,” so almost all of the Maria/Capt. von Trapp romance occurs off-screen. What we get here instead is a stronger focus on the fact that the von Trapp family saga is basically the story of a family learning how to become blended under extraordinary circumstances. Initially, Agathe is mostly too busy dealing with her friction toward Maria to pay close attention to reports that Hitler and his Nazis are increasingly exerting their influence in Salzburg.
Like The Sound of Music, the climax in A Life of Music involves a von Trapp family performance at the Salzburg Music Festival. Agathe regains her singing voice with the help and encouragement of Lotte Lehmann (Annette Dasch), a German soprano who is convinced the von Trapps could be a hit musical act. However, this film — directed by Ben Verbong in the style of an earnest, inoffensive
ABC Family Freeform movie — largely (and wisely) eschews musical numbers; the most we get are some choral Christmas standards. (Trying to go toe-to-toe with the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs from The Sound of Music would’ve been a huge mistake.)
There are, however, minor touches that Sound of Music fans will appreciate. Instead of an ill-fated romance with messenger boy-turned-Nazi Rolfe, Agathe gets to have a (similarly ill-fated) flirtation with childhood friend Sigi (Johannes Nussbaum), a print shop worker who joins the rebellion against the Nazis. Bennett makes for a solid, strong-willed teenage protagonist, while Harris brings a great twinkle to the character in her later years. Dasch steals practically every scene she’s in as Lehmann, while Catterfeld — who doesn’t have a very large role as Maria— conveys some believable and relatable frustration over Agathe’s hostility towards her. The weak link here, unfortunately, is Macfadyen; I realize it’s not fair to compare his work here to Christopher Plummer’s iconic performance in The Sound of Music, but it’s also hard not to do since he’s once again the second most important character in the story. As it stands, his kindly Capt. von Trapp feels like a lightweight compared to Plummer’s commanding work.
A Life of Music was released last year, which marked the 50th anniversary of The Sound of Music. This smaller-scale drama won’t erase the classic musical from anyone’s memory, but it’s a worthy (if minor) addition to the von Trapp family story.