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)
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.