Go West, young Best Picture Oscar
West Side Story is a 1961 musical romantic drama film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and stars Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris. The film was nomiated for 11 Academy Awards, and ended up winning 10, the most all time for a movie musical.
Adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, West Side Story presents a story drawing inspiration from William Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Musical and tragedy seems like an immiscible combination, since tragedies are usually depressing with nearly every main character dying in the end, and musicals normally rely on being typically jolly. Somehow, West Side Story makes the combo work. Taking place in 1957 in Lincoln Square in the West Side of Manhattan, tensions are hot between two street gangs: a White American gang, the Jets, and a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and the Sharks are led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Riff decides one day that the Jets should challenge the Sharks to a rumble for control of the neighborhood at an upcoming school dance. Riff consults the help of Tony (Richard Beymer), a co-founder of the Jets who left the gang. Tony is reluctant to fight or go to the dance, but Riff is able to convince Tony to go to the dance when Tony mentions that he believes that something important will happen. At the dance, Tony meets Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo's younger sister, and the two instantly fall in love. Bernardo breaks up a kiss between the two, and demands that Tony stay away from Maria. Despite the ongoing feud between the gangs, Tony and Maria do whatever they can to be together.
Whatever your feelings are towards Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's West Side Story, the best thing to do is to not compare it too much to Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Some striking similarities easily stick out, like the Jets and the Sharks representing the Montagues and Capulets, respectively. Tony is obviously Romeo, Maria is clearly Juliet. Riff is Mercutio, Bernardo is Tybalt, and so on and so on. One difference you'll easily notice, though, is the way in which it ends. If you're a passionate Shakespeare scholar, you might be tempted to believe that West Side Story fudges up the ending. Tony dies, but Maria lives. That's not the way it works in Shakespeare's tragedies. But West Side Story is not specifically Shakespeare; it's a modern inspiration of, arguably, the playwright's most famous work.
The interesting thing about West Side Story, even to this day, is the way in which it presents to us its telling of a tragic story. Instead of a grim tone, desaturated colors, and a Sarah Mclachan-inspired soundtrack, we have brightly colored cinematography, intensive dance choreography, and a memorable soundtrack by Leonard Bernstein. It's about as anti-tragedy of a way to tell a tragedy, and yet, it is highly effective.
- The singing, dancing, and music are all top notch. IMDB and other sources point to certain behind-the-scenes facts that give you a vivid idea of just how much work and exhaustion went into the production. The actors wore out over 200 pairs of shoes and split 27 different pairs of pants. Jerome Robbins had to rehearse with the dancers for three months before they could begin shooting. Most of the dancers claimed that they suffered injuries at some point during production. "Cool" was so demanding that the actors burned their knee-pads in a ritualistic manner upon wrapping the scene. It is also worth acknowledging that Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer had to have their singing voices dubbed. On the surface, everything flows like a river and has youthful energy abound, while the actors are going through hell when the camera's not rolling.
- West Side Story uses some neat cinematography from Daniel L. Fapp, particularly in its utilization of the color red. Red is a warm-blooded color taken to mean things like love, hate, anger, and violence. All of the possible emotions that can be felt by the color red are on full display here. There is a shot of a blood red sunset to indicate that a tragedy is about to unfold. Tony and Maria are bathed in a reddish light when they are singing about a hopeful future together. Maria wears a red dress during the film's tragic ending, indicating that she has been splotched by the red hatred of the Jets and the Sharks, because it was their anger and hate that spilled Tony's blood and stripped Maria of her one true love. When Tony and Maria first meet at the dance, the two are put into focus with soft lighting while everything else around them is blurred. This happens several times later on, as Tony and Maria are put into focus while everyone and everything else is rubbed out.
- I can't say for sure how all of the musical components of West Side Story were interpreted back in 1961, but, many many years later in 2017, I am inclined to mention that the dancing and theatrics by the actors do look a little absurd at times. This is most evident in the Prologue, where members of the Jets and Sharks chase after one another until a brawl ensues. The way that the Jets and Sharks chase after each other and "fight" is a head-scratcher, because they proceed to twirl and dance as if each gang member is secretly trying to show off which one has the most musical talent. When it comes to two sides having to physically fight, this is where the dividing line is clear between musical and tragedy. To its credit, the movie does avoid making the same mistake again when Mercutio and Tybalt....I mean when Riff and Bernardo have their rumble.
Does West Side Story still hold up? Yes, which is something that I can't say about every Best Picture winner. It is a well acted, well sung, passionately danced, and energetically choreographed movie musical, even if some of it does come off as silly and slightly over-the-top. I've seen it twice now, and I only thought more highly of it the second time around. That 152 minute running time won't be as long as you may fear it will be, I promise.
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