Friday, February 13, 2015

Watch This: West Side Story

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Valentine's Day is just around the corner, and since Reeves Memorial Library is highlighting past Oscar winners all month long in anticipation of the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, this is a perfect opportunity to check out one of the Academy's favorite romances, West Side Story, which took home a whopping ten statuettes in 1962, including Best Picture.  One could argue that, in retrospect, it was not the best film nominated that year (The Hustler certainly gives it a run for its money), but there is no doubt that it remains one of the best film musicals of all time.  While musicals of the previous decade like Singin' in the Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951) are probably better overall films, the music and superb dancing in West Side Story are really what set it apart.  The choreography by Jerome Robbins, who also directed the film's dance sequences, may be the best ever captured on celluloid.

West Side Story is an adaptation of the smash hit stage musical, a modern retelling of Shakespeare's classic romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.  The film has remained one of the very best of the many cinematic Shakespeare retellings (Akira Kurosawa's excellent Ran (based on King Lear) and Throne of Blood (based on Macbeth) are also notable, as is the underrated 1999 teen comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, a modernized version of The Taming of the Shrew).  In this update, The Bard's feuding families become rival New York City street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and the star-crossed lovers are Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo.  In addition to the normal conflicts over turf, there is racial tension between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, exacerbated by the prejudices of the local authorities, represented by the bigoted policeman Lieutenant Schrank and the inept beat cop Officer Krupke.  Tony and Maria meet and fall in love at a neighborhood dance, and later he serenades her outside of her apartment building.  They plan to see each other in secret, and later to run away together, but their romantic bliss is interrupted by a deadly rumble between the two gangs, an event which leads inevitably toward the film's tragic conclusion.

There are aspects of the film that do not work as well.  Some of the dialogue is cloying and heavy-handed, and a few of the dramatic scenes feel flat, although the fatal rumble and the later scene at the drug store in which Anita is insulted and threatened are both terrifically compelling.  The film's treatment of social issues such as gang violence, juvenile delinquency, racism, and the immigrant experience made it a landmark of its genre, but some of these elements have not aged well (most of the gang members don't look very tough by today's standards).

However, these faults are more than made up for by the film's many strengths.  The Oscar-winning supporting performances by George Chakiris and Rita Moreno, as Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita, respectively, are passionate and authentic, conveying an array of emotions with subtle facial expressions and body language that stand in marked contrast to the often broad portrayals by their co-stars.  The filmmakers wisely chose to utilize real New York City locations for many of the scenes, and the opening aerial shots of New York City landmarks serve as a reminder that, although the film's story has classic origins, the setting is distinctly contemporary.  The film's vibrant use of color, most apparent in the dazzling neighborhood dance sequence, also deserves much praise.

West Side Story's romantic storyline is very engaging on its own (it is, after all, borrowed from one of the greatest works in all of literature), but it is elevated by swooningly romantic love songs like "Tonight" and "Maria," both of which have become standards.  The incomparable pairing of composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim produced one of the most memorable scores in musical history (songs like "America," "I Feel Pretty," "Cool," and "Somewhere" have entered the pop culture lexicon), and the film takes full advantage of their brilliant work, with an opening five-minute overture highlighting the score's numerous classic melodies, and editing and cinematography that sometimes use the rhythm of the music as a marker for cutting and camera movement.

More than anything, though, it is the dancing that makes the film such a standout.  Choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins and cinematographer Daniel Fapp both deserve the highest acclaim for helping the film break free from its stage origins to become a musical that is undeniably cinematic.  One rarely gets the feeling that this is just people dancing in front of a camera.  For example, consider the masterful, nearly wordless ten-minute opening scene, in which the two gangs have a showdown in and around the basketball courts of a neighborhood playground.  There is something distinctly filmic about the way the dancers move through the frame, the way the camera moves to follow them during the ebb and flow of their back-and-forth struggle for territorial dominance, and the way they enter and leave the frame.  There is the terrific shot that begins with the camera panning right to follow the Jets as they toss around a basketball, and ends with a quick pan left to a close-up of the ball unexpectedly in the hands of Bernardo, whose sudden presence is a surprise to both the viewer and the Jets.  (An interesting side note: the film's pairing of a moving camera with in-frame movement has made it an unlikely favorite of current blockbuster action film director Michael Bay, whose influential aesthetic, known as "Bayhem," is characterized by the extreme overuse of this technique).

Although West Side Story ends in tragedy (this should not be a surprise to anyone familiar with Romeo and Juliet), its enchanting love story and beautiful music make it a perfect Valentine's Day viewing experience.

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