West Side Story (1961)

Musicals are not my favorite genre of film, in fact, they may be my least favorite.  Having said that, I have been trying to make an effort to see some of the classics and approach them with an open mind.  Similarly, I was not a fan of the western genre for a long time either, but have come to appreciate the genre quite a bit.  My exposure to movie musicals is very limited.  I remember having to watch Fiddler on the Roof in music class in 4th grade as well as West Side Story at some point in elementary school.  I either did not pay attention or I forgot much of it (though I do vividly remember “If I were a rich man…!” from Fiddler).  Regardless, being forced to watch something you have no interest in can be a sure way to turn you off to something for a long time, and I think it had a lasting effect on me until recently when I decided to give musicals a try.  My first recent foray into the genre was Mary Poppins and, much to my surprise, I did enjoy it.  So when I saw West Side Story was being aired on TCM, I decided to record it and give it a shot as well.  West Side Story has a reputation as being the greatest musical in movie history, adapted from the classic Shakespeare tale of Romeo & Juliet.

The opening of the film was indicative for me of what the experience of the film would be overall.  I could have done without the long orchestral intro of the title sequence, even though it is done by the legendary Saul Bass.  But once the title is revealed, the opening sequence of the overhead shots of New York City are truly spectacular, unique, and impressive.  The world is quickly established through the opening with these two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks struggling with one another to own their local streets.  The lines are clearly drawn between the immigrant Puerto Ricans the Sharks and their leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris), and the more established Caucasian gang the Jets and their leader, Riff (Russ Tamblyn).  Despite warnings from the police, tensions slowly escalate between the two rival gangs, and two people from opposite sides of the divide, Riff’s best friend Tony (Richard Beymer) and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood), fall in love and are quickly engulfed by the circumstances when things reach a boiling point between the two gangs.

As a film viewer who is seeing this over 50 years after its production, it would be easy, but ultimately unfair, to view this film through the lens of modern eyes in some aspects of its production quality, such as the audio dubbing of the musical numbers being noticeably off throughout.  While it frequently looks like the English language dubbing of a foreign martial arts film, I do not fault the film for this but see it merely as a state of the condition of movie making at the time.  The same could be said for the unfortunate choice of “brown-face.”  But there are several narrative and production critiques I found myself asking as I watched the film, as well as several praise-worthy aspects of the film as well.

I readily admit that this may be a nitpick, but the opening song and dance number, famous for the finger-snapping, features several moments where a basketball is used as a prop, and it feels like the most foreign, unnatural thing in the entire movie based on how uncomfortable nearly all of the actors involved seem to be in handling it.  As a basketball fan and someone who loved to play the game growing up, it is immediately noticeable that these people have no idea how to make it work.  Basketball is a sport that at its best can look like poetry in motion and almost as if it has its own unique kind of choreography; when actually choreographed, as it is here, it looks amazingly bad and unrealistic.  If the actors cannot pull it off convincingly, do something else.

The film does a fairly impressive job of mixing in live locations with their studio set pieces, which removes some of the artifice inherent in adapting a stage production and grounding it more in reality.  The opening “Jet Song” is particularly effective at this.  However, it becomes slightly problematic later in a scene on the fire escape when Maria repeatedly warns Tony to be quiet lest he wake her father, only to moments later be singing aloud  for the whole world to hear when they sing “Tonight.”  It is an odd balance between reality and the suspension of reality that the film doesn’t totally pull off for me.  It’s a difficult task to pull off a musical grounded in a real world setting, when almost by nature musicals have a sense of heightened reality to them.

As far as the story goes, two things tripped me up.  First, I was completely thrown by the age of the characters.  Are they supposed to be teenagers or post-high school young adults?  It seems like there is evidence for both, as all the members of these two gangs attend a dance at a high school, but Tony and Maria both seem to have jobs.  And since Bernardo is Maria’s overprotective older brother, he must be older than Maria, so what is he doing for money?  In fact, what are all of these guys doing for money if they spend all of their time dancing in the streets against one another all day and night?  I have a hard time imagining they are shaking down local businesses for a cut of their money in return for protection, a la organized crime.  It all perplexes me.

Secondly, why would Maria send Anita to deliver an important, time-sensitive message to Tony when Tony has just killed Anita’s boyfriend, Bernardo?  In what world is it even remotely a smart idea?  I just don’t see that as being something that anyone, even someone as naïve/hopeful as Maria, would think of in that moment under those circumstances.

With all of that said, I did not write this review merely to trash West Side Story.  There were several positives I took out of viewing this film as well.

First off, I have to praise the cinematography.  While some of the shots are a mixed bag because it’s a film from 1961, some of them are downright exquisite, especially in HD.  A lot of the colors are sharp and vibrant.  The scene at the high school dance and the aforementioned aerial shots of New York City still stick out in my mind.  Another shot that stands out in my mind, a part of the school dance, is the moment that Tony and Maria first notice each other across the dance hall.  Everything else in the frame is blurred except for these two who remain completely in focus.  It’s a great camera effect that visually depicts that moment of two people meeting and feeling like the only two people in the world in that moment in time.

While I did not find a lot of the acting particularly great (I think there is a lot of overacting, in fact), I thought Rita Moreno as Anita was the best actor in the entire film, by far.  Not only was her acting good, with the almost-gang-rape of Anita being disturbingly effective and chilling, but I thought she got the best part of the best song with her part in “America.”  In fact, “America” was one of the real highlights of the film for me, perfectly juxtaposing the pros and cons of the immigrant experience in America.  Also, while I am not particularly knowledgeable about choreography and dance in general, I do appreciate the skill and ability of many of these actors in being able to do what they do and make it look mostly effortless.  In particular, Russ Tamblyn’s agility is noticeable and a plus for the film.

As for the music of Sondheim and Bernstein here, there was some of it that was great, there was some I could have done without.  It was nice to experience “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty” in their proper context for the first time, when those are two songs that for whatever reason, I’ve seemingly known through pop culture osmosis.  The “Tonight Quintet” gave me a reference point and deeper appreciation for the “La Resistance Medley” from South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut than I had before.  However, “Be Cool” did not work for me, and “Gee, Officer Krupke” felt like it belonged to a different movie altogether.

Ultimately, I recognize that musicals are not my cup of tea, but I am open to experiencing more of them in the future.  West Side Story had the added weight of the “masterpiece” label attached to it, as well as the fact that it won ten Oscars.  That can be a blessing and a curse because of expectations that come with that, and it’s hard to detach a film from its acclaim and look at it on its own merits and how it works on you.  Citizen Kane, for example, exceeded the “masterpiece” expectations I had going into it.  In the end, I have a hard time getting past the dancing gangs aspect of it all.  West Side Story falls short of a masterpiece for me, but I did not dislike the film outright as I had partly expected to beforehand.  I was still able to appreciate the cinematography, the choreography, and the story.  I also can see that it is a prime example of the universality and timeless nature of the work of Shakespeare.  I’m not sure I would go so far as to appreciate it enough to say I feel like it justified ten Oscars (especially in a year that also saw The Hustler released).  However, the mere fact that I was able to look past my musical prejudices and find commendable and praiseworthy things in this film is a credit to the artistic merit of the film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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