West Side Story (1961)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/09/05 15:37:22

"The poetry of the movie musical."
5 stars (Awesome)

At first, all we hear is a lone whistle. Then the overture begins, with strange, abstract lines appearing on the screen. Ah, wait... those lines are a sketchy rendition of the skyscrapers of New York. The overture winds down, with only that whistle and the occasional drum beat guiding us as we fly over the city streets. Then we see them, a street gang, snapping in unison, and then - oh crap, are they dancing?!

I’ll be honest, the first time I saw “West Side Story,” I laughed. Street punks doing ballet? Are you kidding me? Sadly, I never bothered to look past that slight bend in reality, and I missed out on one of the finest movie musicals ever produced.

Thankfully, a growing fondness for the music and a curiosity to see what I had missed the first time around got me to see it again. And again, and again, and again. I quickly saw what my ill-informed laughter had blocked out originally: that “West Side” is more than all-singing, all-dancing thugs. It’s more than just another musical, with folks bursting into song for no reason.

It is, in fact, a ballet, not just of music and dance, but of cinema, if you’ll pardon the high-falootin’ talk. Just as choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins takes the characters into a world of “hyper-reality” through their movements, their actions, and their songs, fellow director Robert Wise does the same with the lighting, the editing, the camerawork. It all comes together to create, for lack of a better word, a visual symphony.

Unlike most movie musicals, which simply take a stage show and reset it in a movie environment, “West Side” does something more. It uses the art of film to enhance the original work, creating something new, something alive. The filmmakers tinker with lighting gimmicks and editing tricks in order to meld abstract images; watch, for example, as Maria (Natalie Wood), elated as she prepares to go to her first dance, starts to spin. Her twirling body becomes a spectacle of color, which fades into the red silhouettes of teenage dancers, finally exploding back into the reality of the live action image.

Or watch as Tony (Richard Beymer), lost in love, begins to sing to himself. As he walks out of the dance, the background images melt away, turning from dance hall to city skyline. Visual stunts like this remind us that the characters don’t just live in their own world - they’re in their own universe.

So once you accept the “singing street gangs” not as reality, but as abstract representation (again, ballet), you’re ready to watch the film skepticism-free. The opening scene helps; in what ranks as one of the most impressive opening sequences in film history, we’re slowly introduced to the characters at hand through a slick, jazzy dance number. This near-wordless ten minute introduction lets us meet the Jets and the Sharks, and through action, dance, and music, we learn all we need to know about them. This sequence is as impressive for its dance (“West Side” features the most impressive, technically demanding on-screen dancing this side of Gene Kelly) as it is for its sneaky notion of exposition: through this one scene, we not only get a sense of the gangs, but we’re also put at ease with the film’s ideas. The opening serves as a transition from our real world to the film’s universe.

The plot that follows is deceptively simple. In the sweltering heat of a New York summer, as the Jets (the white boys gang) and the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang) prepare to rumble, Maria and Tony fall in love. Tony is the former leader of the Jets, and Maria’s the sister of the Sharks’ leader, so naturally, their love meets a few obstacles. (Yes, it’s an update of “Romeo and Juliet,” but don’t look for exact parallels to Shakespeare’s plot; only a few scenes match the tragedy action for action.)

As for the love story, Tony and Maria’s story is as simple as it sounds. Even their characters’ songs rank as the least complicated numbers in the bunch, fairly routine ballads and bouncy fluff along the lines of “I Feel Pretty.” (Simple or not, their duet, “Somewhere,” packs quite the punch. The song appears when the two lock eyes while “playing” marraige, turns into a touching number later, and finally returns for the final scene. Other songs may be catchier, but this simple tune serves as the heart of the story.)

But floating around the “simple” Maria-Tony affair is the deeper-than-you’d-think subplot. “West Side” plays as a harsh examination of racism, juvenile crime, and the rude awakening that follows the American Dream. Take that last point first: the high-energy tune “America” debates the pros and cons of being an immigrant, slowly sliding into the point of bigotry. (“Things are alright in America / If you’re all white in America.”)

It’s the racism theme that’s most noticed about the musical, and both the songs and the script spread the blame. Everyone’s angry at somebody else, and the name calling and blind hatred seems to have spread through the neighborhood like a virus. Although the language is toned down for 1961 audiences, the film doesn’t water down the emotions themselves. (Oddly enough, “West Side,” which presents racism through song and dance, is far more effective than the Stanley Kramer beat-you-over-the-head Message Movies of the era.)

Often overlooked in examinations of the movie, however, is its spin on street life. While the Jets joke about their reasons for turning to crime in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the truth isn’t that far off; when gruff-but-kindhearted Lt. Schrank (Simon Oakland) cracks about a Jet’s mom being a prostitute, or another’s father being a drunk, you can tell he is, sadly, right on the mark. These are kids whose lives are in tatters, with gang life being their lone source of pride. This is a place where, as shopkeeper Doc (Ned Glass) puts it, the kids “live like there’s a war on.”

While a few adults, such as Lt. Schrank, truly care about these youths, most of the grown-ups are as clueless and as square as the dance host (played with nerdish brilliance by John Astin). The kids are on their own in their self-made cruel world.

This isn’t the sort of thing you’d expect from a musical. But “West Side” is not content being typical. It even ends unlike a musical should, wrapping things up not with a big production number, but with cold hard silence; just as the opening sequence is among Hollywood’s best, so is the devastating finale, a scene that uses the lack of a traditional Big Finish to its advantage. These last few minutes alone present a perfect example of filmmaking as emotional manipulation, and I’d list this among the best endings around.

So sure, “West Side” is far from realistic. And yet, it’s as gripping as the most earth-bound tale. The filmmakers have taken dark themes - violence, murder, and attempted rape among those I didn’t have space to mention - and filtered them through the art of song, dance, and cinema. The result is a world unlike any other, a phenomenal filmmaking achievement worth seeing time and time again.

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