Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Classic Series: West Side Story

What a joy it is to revisit West Side Story - having aced the test of time, it’s safe to say that West Side Story isn’t just one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, it’s one of the greatest movies period. No other film musical within forty years of this one features such sophisticated film-making. The color and quality of the celluloid itself dates it, but the cinematography and film editing are so advanced you might think the footage had been shot yesterday. Boasting the music of Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the invaluable direction of Robert Wise, West Side Story stands tall among cinema’s true masterpieces, and no lover of theater, film, or even Shakespeare can afford to miss it.

A modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the story unfolds in the slums of 1950’s New York. The Jets and the Sharks, two rival gangs, are constantly fighting for ownership of the streets. The Sharks are all immigrants from Puerto Rico, and much of the animosity between the gangs stems from their racial differences. Both sides agree to have a final “rumble” to settle the score once and for all. Meanwhile, Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet, falls madly in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of one of the Sharks. Their secret romance becomes more and more complicated to uphold, and the two lovers begin to understand that they somehow hold the key to the future of the two gangs: peaceful compromise or unparalleled violence.

The cast is made-up almost exclusively of great dancers, and their talents are not wasted. More athletic than graceful, the choreography of West Side Story absolutely sizzles with hot energy. Just as opera uses song to communicate dialogue, this musical uses dance to communicate actions and emotions. Traditional movie dance numbers usually serve more as eye-candy than plot development, which often adds value and weight to a film (no one would dispute the effectiveness of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire’s sequences), though the majority of the dance in West Side Story proves to be more functional. Gang violence, murder, and even rape are all communicated through highly effective dance.

The musical opened on Broadway in 1957. Originally envisioned as a story about a Catholic boy falling in love with a Holocaust survivor, the plot changed when America began receiving a huge influx of Puerto Rican immigration. The play ends with a powerful monologue about racial intolerance in America, which has certainly helped the play endure over the years. Like Show Boat or South Pacific, West Side Story works as a musical with social commentary and purpose. The structural similarity to Romeo and Juliet also helps ensure its immortality; what tale could be more timeless than one of star-crossed lovers? That was already a well-known formula when Shakespeare ripped it off in the late 16th century.

The film version of West Side Story is one of two stage-to-screen musicals that I believe to be without flaw, having absolutely no room for improvement. The other is The Sound of Music, and I believe that these two films significantly improved on the original stage versions. Interestingly enough, both films share a common director: Robert Wise, one of the true masters of American film. In addition to being an Academy Award-winning producer and director, he was also a renowned sound editor and film editor, earning his first Oscar nomination for his editing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and directed the Broadway play, lent his knowledge and creativity in co-directing the film alongside Wise, mostly working with the dance and fight sequences. These talents are all at work in West Side Story, and no where more noticeably than in the remarkable opening sequence. Largely devoid of dialogue, the film’s ten-minute opening follows the two gangs through the city streets. The camera shows the action from a plethora of different angles, and the camera perspectives of these shots show phenomenal foresight. The camera occasionally moves behind fences and railings, giving us slightly obstructed views of the action. As simple as this may sound, the camerawork is so advanced that it almost goes unnoticed by viewers today, seeming as current and fluid as any modern movie. The cinematography was truly decades ahead of its time.

People often reference the three-way tie for most Academy Award wins: Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King all won eleven. However, many forget that West Side Story garnered ten, which is more than any other musical and one shy of the record. Energetic, tragic, amusing, poignant, and visionary, West Side Story never takes a wrong turn. Movie buffs who have seen many other films from this era tend to be impressed with how well this one holds up. Every friend I’ve ever shown it to has thanked me afterwards - even those who claim to not particularly enjoy musicals. West Side Story set a bold new standard for musical pictures, and that standard has yet to be surpassed.

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