West Side Story Blu-ray Review

I have an ongoing argument with a good friend of mine over the movie The Notebook.  She thinks it’s one of the most romantic and tear jerking films of all time, whereas I simply don’t get it.  Ally and Noah reconnect after a short separation, realize they’re still madly in love, get married, have babies and live in a big house. How is that sad? Surely that’s what everyone strives for isn’t it?  My friend claims that what makes it a tear jerker is that they both die at the end.  My argument is that although they both die at the end, they do so having shared happy and fulfilling lives.  They’re both old and they decide to die together before Alzimers robs Ally of herself.  That’s not sad!  It’s a happy conclusion to their story – they’re together, forever.  People who cry at The Notebook should be made to sit down in front of West Side Story and witness what a real tear jerker looks like.  If you don’t cry at the end of this classic, then by thunder, you really are dead inside.

The plot of West Side Story is that of Romeo and Juliet updated and set amongst street gangs in late 1950s’ New York.  The Montague’s are now the Jets, a Polish gang who have controlled the streets for as long as they can remember.  The Capulet’s have become the Sharks a gang of recent Puerto Rican immigrants. The Jets are led by Riff (or Mercutio if you will), best friend to Tony (Romeo), who has left the gang and is working for Doc (Friar Laurence) in the Candy Store.  Riff hates the Sharks especially their charismatic and angry leader Bernardo (Tybalt) for muscling in on Jets’ turf. Bernardo has been a victim of racial abuse and harassment since he moved to America and now wants to claim the area for the Puerto Rican community that lives there. Bernado’s innocent and naive sister, Maria (Juliet) is new to America, having been bought up from Puerto Rico to marry Chico, a man she has ambivalent feelings towards.  If you know the story of Romeo and Juliet you’ll know that Tony and Maria are destined to meet, fall madly (and secretly) in love only to be torn apart when violence explodes, leaving Bernardo and Riff dead and Tony dying in Maria’s arms only hours after their “marriage”. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it The Notebook, that’s tragedy.

Sounds great right?  Have I mentioned it’s a musical? No, no, no, don’t let the tiny fact that people burst into song scare you away from this film.  It’s a musical for people who don’t like musicals. Quite apart from the fact that it’s based on one of Shakespeare’s most famous and well loved tragedies, it is set to perhaps the most magnificent and moving score ever committed to celluloid.  You may hate the genre but you will be dazzled by this films incredible music and even more incredible choreography.   

In favour of the score, West Side Story contains (and it’s not an exaggeration to say it) one of the most heart wrenching songs of the 20th Century, Somewhere. It’s beautifully tinged with the tragedy to come, even before its reprise as Maria cradles a dying Tony. But it’s not just that the music is soaring, emotive and brilliant, it’s that lyrically the songs are intelligent and interesting.  Look at the words to America, the only upbeat song in the whole movie and its comedic tone belies the true reality of life in the 1950s’ for Latino immigrants: “Free to be anything you choose/Free to wait tables and shine shoes” and “Life can be bright in America/ if you are white in America”. It must have been a pretty gutsy thing to do in 1961 to have the two most prominent Sharks (unlike a lot of the Sharks Rita Moreno was actually Puerto Rican, whereas George Chakiris was of Greek descent) singing about the fact that the “American Dream” only exists if you’re white.

The theme of racism permeates the whole movie and that was something the film makers wanted. They wanted to highlight racism in America.  Not only do we witness casual racism from the Jets, but the local police are just as bad if not worse. Lieutenant Schrank offers to turn a blind eye to Jet on Shark violence and even to lend a hand in the upcoming rumble. There is also racism from the Sharks towards the Jets and at one point Maria is urged by Anita to “stick to your own kind”. There is also a lot of “them” verses “us” which is more to do with skin colour than it is to do with gang affiliation.

I do wonder however (and it loathes me to say anything negative about this film) for all this talk about highlighting racism, if there isn’t something inherently racist about “blacking up” your female lead to make her look Puerto Rican (although of Russian decent, Natalie Wood was far from dark skinned). I can’t believe that there wasn’t a talented actress of Latino descent who couldn’t have done as good a job as Natalie Wood (especially when I learnt, to my horror, that she was dubbed anyway).  Can you really tell a mixed-race love story when both romantic leads are played by white actors? I feel cheated knowing that, I understand it was the 1950s’ but it does leave me with a sour taste in my mouth that no amount of repeat viewings of Cool can wash out.

Speaking of Cool, I need to talk about the choreography.  One word – wow.  This is perhaps the best choreographed musical I’ve ever seen.  Of course, it helped that the choreographer Jerome Robbins was also the director (or he was until he was fired for his perfectionism causing the shoot to overrun).  His perfectionism and attention to detail is evident throughout the movie, although it is the Cool set piece where he excels.  The special features on this edition actually has a whole section dedicated to the memories of filming this piece and how Robbins worked his cast so hard that in the end Eliot Feld was hospitalized with Pneumonia. By my goodness that hard work pays off on the screen.

Talking about the choreography, I’ve heard people laugh at the opening confrontation between the Sharks and the Jets and say that it’s ridiculous and unbelievable to have gang members running around doing pirouettes.   I take issue with that.  Yes, the choreography is balletic but if you watch it, it is also really menacing.  The Sharks’ movements are restrained and animalistic, displaying their anger in contrast with the Jets’ freedom of movement and tight pack-like formations flaunting their arrogance and power.  Moreover, the clever idea to use the finger clicks to convey menace not just in this scene but throughout the film is thoroughly convincing. Re-watching that initial confrontation it’s incredibly violent, albeit in a theatrical way.
It helps of course that the film was shot on location; it adds a touch of grittiness to what could otherwise have been a cozy, shiny Hollywood back lot production.   Not that I’m suggesting West Side Story is “gritty” in that way because it isn’t.  The colour pallet used in this film is spectacular.  There are deep reds and purples used to signify the Sharks and earthy browns and greens for the Jets.  In fact it’s so vibrant it’s almost proto-Bollywood.

It’s these things that elevate West Side Story above your run-of-the-mill musical.  Don’t believe me? Ask the Academy, West Side Story won a total of 10 Oscars (the most ever for a musical), including Best Picture and two acting nods for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to get a copy.  Even if you don’t like musicals, this one will change your mind, and leave you in floods of tears.

Special Features:

There are a couple of nice one’s actually.  One about the choreography of the piece and the talking heads commenting on it include some of the most well known choreographers in the world.  It’s wonderful to hear professionals explain to us laymen why the choreography is so good and so complex. There is also a West Side Story Legacy piece where they talk about how it’s come to form part of popular culture and been referenced in everything over the years, from The Simpsons to  Curb Your Enthusiasm.  And there is also West Side Story Memories, where the cast and crew are interviewed (or should I say, were interviewed because many of them have sadly passed away) and give you a bit of background into the making of, and how difficult it was to work with Jerome Robbins and meet his exacting standards. There’s also a documentary about colour and camerawork which is very interesting.  Although I wouldn’t say this is the definitive West Side Story, it’s worth adding to your collection if you don’t already have it.

Suzanne King

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