Monday, August 6, 2012

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story (1961)
Directed by: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
Written by: Ernest Lehman, Arthur Laurents (musical book)
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Ned Glass, Simon Oakland
(152 minutes, Color)

To watch West Side Story is to experience a kind of fundamental joy; an ecstasy that's hard to put into words but can be felt in your bones. The movie is absolute perfection in a way that little others can achieve. The jigsaw pieces come together perfectly, and when joined, make a stunning portrait of raw emotion and artistic triumph. It's not the first great American musical, but it is one of the most defining. The soundtrack roars without abandon in some scenes (think the jazzy Mambo number) and later, soothes reverently. The dancers leap across the stage without limitations and the camera follows them everywhere, unbridled by laws of conventional technique. Everything in the movie is poetic and sincere. Watching it feels like you're living inside a love letter full of grace and tragedy. It's an ennobling experience.

It's been decades since we've seen the kind of musical Hollywood was famous for creating: unique, unabashedly romantic (whether comedic or tragic) and stunningly executed. Musicals today are cop-outs: they steal almost directly from the Broadway plays they are invariably based upon instead of improving and adapting the material for the screen, and they are frequently embarrassed of their own nature (think 2006's Dreamgirls, where 90% of the songs are sung in the context of a recording studio or concert). Compared to early Hollywood musicals and those that continued through the 1960s, musicals today are pathetic. A genre that has more potential than any other to be emotionally staggering and majestic is now the running joke of the film business.

That's part of what makes watching West Side Story today so refreshing. The story comes from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In place of the Capulets and Montagues, we have the Sharks (a gang made up of Puerto Rican immigrants) and the Jets (a white gang). Bernardo (George Chakiris) leads the Sharks and Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is the chief of the Jets. An underlying current of racism pervades the conflict between the two groups, but doesn't motivate it. Sure, the Jets may hurl racist remarks at the Puerto Ricans, but they don't fight the immigrants because they are immigrants. Their motivation for fighting lies in the need for fighting itself. Both gangs are full of young people eager to prove themselves, and the angst and confusion of growing up in New York City has to be vented somewhere. Both groups fight for fighting's sake.

Into the chaos wonders Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jets member who quit to start a new, responsible existence with a job working for Doc (Ned Glass), a local drugstore owner. He is convinced that "something's coming," but he's not sure what. Maria, on the other hand, is the younger sister of Bernardo. She is an innocent new immigrant in America and is naively ignorant of much of the fighting transpiring around her. Her family is hopeful of a match between her and another young immigrant, Chino.  When the Sharks and Jets both attend the same community dance, Maria and Tony meet. In a gorgeously rendered sequence, they only see each other, despite the vibrant dancing all around them. As they move toward each other, the music and movement slow, and glittering sparks descend upon them. Later that night, they meet on the fire escape in a clever twist on Shakespeare's balcony scene.

Many of the scenes that follow are more widely known than those in Shakespeare's eternally famous play.  Ask someone on the street which they are most familiar with: Tybalt from Romeo and Juliet or Bernardo from West Side Story.  Do they know the dialogue from the balcony scene, or can they sing you the lyrics to "Tonight?" West Side Story is perhaps the most appealing musical in America, and the biggest part of that comes from the film's audacious musical numbers.  Songs like "America," "Somewhere," "Cool," "A Boy Like That," and "Maria" have become instantly recognizable and frequently imitated.  Ironically, when the musical was first staged, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics were judged to be too witty for the characters singing them.  An example is "America," during which Anita, Bernardo's fiance, comes up with snappy retorts to her husband's (in the musical, other Puerto Rican women's) accusations of the falsities of American life.  The song is my personal favorite of the bunch, partly because of the snappy lyrics ("free to do anything you choose/free to wait tables and shine shoes") and also because of the courageously difficult choreography that accompanies a varying 6/8 and 3/4 time signature.  Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award for her emotionally immersive performance as Anita, said this about the music of West Side Story: "...Along comes Leonard Bernstein with his 5/4 time, his 6/8 time, his 25/6 time. It was just crazy. It's very difficult to dance to that kind of music, because it doesn't make dancer sense."  It made sense to choreographer/director Jerome Robbins, however.  Robbins was the choreographer from the original Broadway production that was heralded by critics as revolutionary and edgy.  He insisted on choreographing and directing the dancing, and was promoted to co-director for his work.  After months and months of choreographing before shooting, Robbins ended up improvising much of the work on-set.  He was one of those notorious directors famous for unending takes and impossible demands.  The final result, however, is no less than breathtaking. 

Rita Moreno is ravishing as Anita
The dancing in West Side Story is how character and story are expressed.  The masterful opening sequence, which lasts nine minutes, is devoid of dialogue.  The two gangs establish themselves by separately wandering around the city streets.  Their snapping slowly gives way to music.  Their walking gives way to movement.  When they encounter each other, their physical conflicts are in dance, and are all the more explosive because of it.  The "rumble" between the gangs halfway through the film builds gradually like the opening sequence, and only dissolves into an un-choreographed brawl after the crucial violence has taken place.  The dancing isn't the least unrealistic.  It's expressive and interpretative, and if it weren't executed as carefully as it was, I doubt West Side Story would be remembered today.  Other numbers are raucous and uninhibited, such as a mambo contest between the two gangs.  As an unbelievable  trumpet solo blares on the soundtrack, the two groups square off in a school gym: the Jets in bright colors and the Sharks in dark suits and flapping Latino dresses.  Co-director Robert Wise was chosen to direct the drama sequences and was a safe studio choice (he was the editor of Citizen Kane), but Robbins truly deserves the credit for West Side Story's lasting impact.  The drama and dialogue sequences serve the story well, but are really only filler between the musical numbers, which express the film's urgency and emotion.  Wise wisely chooses to step aside and allow Robbins to work his magic with the film's high points.

There was a lot of drama surrounding the cast's musical performance. Natalie Wood, who does a satisfactory job in her role, caused a large controversy when she was cast as Maria. Wood, fresh off her Oscar win, wasn't a singer, she wasn't Puerto Rican, and it was obvious that she was cast solely to pull in money for the movie. She was led to believe she would sing all of her own parts when she was cast, but eventually her songs were dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Kerr in The King and I. Wood does a fine job in her part, but her casting led to tensions among the cast and crew, further exacerbated by Robbins' obsessive style of direction. Beymer ended up being dubbed too, as was Moreno in one song that was too low for her vocal range.

Moreno's performance truly steals the movie.  Anita has only a supporting role in the movie, but thanks to Moreno's performance (at some points winningly sexy and others hauntingly vulnerable), she's the most interesting character in the movie.  Her smile in early scenes (the mambo, "America") lights up the screen, but later, after Bernardo is accidentally killed by Tony in a fit of rage, she becomes the emotional core of the film.  Before his death, Bernardo committed a similar offense: fatally stabbing Riff by mistake.  When Anita sings to Maria that "a boy who kills cannot love," the hearts of the audience break for her unintended hypocrisy.  "He'll murder your love, as he murdered mine" is just a simple song lyric, but the way Moreno acts the scene brings it a greater despair.  It is her who puts the final misunderstanding of the plot into motion: originally trying to help Maria and Tony, but then lying about their fates after being beaten and nearly raped by the Jets.  The audience doesn't blame her. We feel terrible for her. "There is a huge piece of my soul in that scene," Moreno said. "It's all of the terrible things that happened to me. Not like that, but it was symbolic of all of the terrible things that happened to me when I was younger that apparently just inundated my soul and seared my soul and I was as surprised as anybody." When Anita lies about the fate of Maria, the audience is in her shoes: we feel her pain and anger.

The biggest difference from the Romeo and Juliet storyline comes at the end of the movie. Unlike Shakespeare's legendary ending, suicide doesn't play a role in the fates of Maria and Tony, and only one of them dies. Tony, after being led to believe that Maria has been murdered by Chino in a jealous rage, is himself shot by Chino as he realizes that Maria is indeed alive. He dies in Maria's arms. She grabs the murder weapon and threatens to kill herself and others, but is unable to do so. Many critics have commented on how this ending robs West Side Story of a truly tragic ending. Ebert attributes it to a "bias in Hollywood toward happy endings." My opinion is quite to the contrary. Anyone who could describe the finale of West Side Story as "happy" is touched in the head. Suicide wouldn't have been the right choice for these kids. The message of the movie, unlike that of Romeo and Juliet, doesn't revolve around the innocent romance itself as much as the conflict surrounding it. Maria is the only innocent in the entire movie. Every single other character, no matter their good intentions, lowers their standards and perpetuates the gang feud by the end of the film. Maria is the only one without a hand in the fighting, yet she is the one harmed the most by it, losing her brother, her lover, and her relationship with her family. In the final shot of the film, Maria, dressed in a striking red dress that is in sharp contrast to the rainy night and the black viel placed upon her head, is at the rear of a funeral procession of sorts for Tony, whose body is being carried by members of both gangs. She walks like one condemned to an existence of suffering. The fact that she is fated to live on through the wreckage of the fighting she had no part in affects me more than her death would have. Less tragic, yes, but more poignant and poetic.

Another winning aspect of West Side Story is the way the musical numbers are filmed. In today's musicals, song and dance scenes are quickly edited with snappy, nondescriptive MTV-type shots. It's hard to concentrate on any of the choreography because the camera has an attention deficit disorder. The photography of West Side Story captures the dancing in full view, without many fast cuts or close-ups. The way the bodies of the dancers move is perfectly complemented by the movement of the camera. As the two gangs compete to the mambo, the camera spans the entire gym, capturing the movements of both groups. As Maria and Tony declare their love on the fire escape, the camera captures them at an upward angle, viewing not only their hands reaching out longingly (him on the ground and her atop the fire escape) but also the intricate maze of steel around them. The gangs don't just fight. They leap at the camera with fury.

The adaptation of West Side Story from stage to screen is a prime example of how writers can stay true to source material while making it at home on camera. Of course, the various censorships of the time had to be made ("don't matter if he's tired, as long as he's hot" is changed to "as long as he's here"), but overall, changes from the stage to screen are positive. Musical numbers from the stage show are switched around in order to increase tension in the plot, something theatrical producers thought would be ill-advised. The comical numbers are found early on in the film, the latter half of which is almost all tragedy. Even the movie's famous ballad of hope, "Somewhere," is tinged by sorrow. The transition from cheery musicality to heavier thematic material is flawless because it isn't rushed. The script gives the characters time to change along with the circumstances surrounding them, staying true to themselves. No sudden, improbable changes are sprung on them or the audience.

Today, West Side Story is somewhat of a relic. It's an epic musical the likes of which won't be seen again in the near future. It's an unabashed two and a half hours of song and dance. It has an intermission and an overture. The camera moves in unpredictable and creative ways in ome scenes, and in others, is allowed to breathe. Innovations are rampant. Because of that, it feels fresh and exciting. The fact that it's so unlike anything seen today makes it invigorating. The artistic choices alone are worth seeing the movie for. There's something else, however, that holds people's attention and keeps the movie in their hearts and minds. Maybe everyone watching puts themselves in Maria and Tony's shoes, facing the odds courageously, surrounded by mindless conflict. Maybe the ending is a somber reminder for people to change, and to put others before themselves. Regardless of the reason, West Side Story is a treasure. Watch it a million times, and on the millionth-and-one viewing, you'll uncover a gem never before seen.

West Side Story is not rated by the MPAA.  Much of the adult thematic material (some revolves around rape, violence, sex, racial tensions, etc.) is lightly handled and will fly over the heads of kids, but having an adult preview the movie is never a bad idea.

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