West Side Story (1961)
After enduring La La Land, I felt the need for a palette cleanser. Now I’ve gone on the record numerous times with my dislike of musicals. Sunshine on Leith, Evita, even Les Mis, all bloody awful. I’m not entirely against the concept though, songs in films can be fine, great even. Little Shop of Horrors, The Commitments. I’m always fuzzy on what constitutes a musical though, over just a film with music. Is there a song count, does every bit of dialogue need to be sung? Who knows, who cares. What’s certain through, is West Side Story is a musical and it’s great! From the opening abstract graphic gently changing colour with the score that can only be described as lush, to the gorgeous aerial shots of 1950s New York, to the finger clicking Jets and Sharks strutting down the block, West Side Story is unapologetically cool. What I usually dislike about musicals, is the crowbarring of song and dance into everyday life, it jars. Here though, the entire thing is a performance. Every single move is choreographed. Why just run, when you can add a few jumps and pirouettes. The Leonard Bernstein music never stops either, it’s ever present, dictating the pace, mood and narrative beautifully. It’s really not all that far removed from the theatre production on which it’s based, but the way it’s brought to the screen really is fantastic. A world of incredible sets, inner city New York dressed meticulously. Nearly 60 years on, it still looks amazing. Although a little on the overly colourful side, Hollywood being in the grip of dialling colour saturation up to radiation levels like a kid with a new toy. The premise is remarkably simple, essentially Romeo & Juliet. Instead of Shakespeare, we have two teenage New York Street gangs, in 1950s blue collar America. The Puerto Rican Sharks and the white American Jets. Not everyone is in a gang though. Tony used to be a Jet, but now works and dreams of something more. He’s best friends with Jets gang leader Riff though, and when you’re a Jet... Well you’re not a Shark, like leader Bernardo, brother of Maria who like Tony also has dreams of finding excitement, happiness, love. For all the gang tension, you’re as likely to get a group dance off as a fight. To make a film like this now, well I just can’t see it. Films like this are of an era, less cynical perhaps, although sadly no less troubled. Yet surprise surprise a remake is in the works, due out later this year. To say I’m not hopeful is a massive understatement. We need a new version of West Side Story as much as we needed any version of Cats! Back to the dancing though and specifically a dancehall, where the two gangs show up, with both Tony and Maria. Their eyes meet, love at first sight. But just as they’re about to kiss, their ‘families’ intervene, tearing Maria away from Tony. The poor lad is smitten through, can’t help himself bursting into song as he walks the streets, bathed in a warm pink tone. It’s not my favourite song (there’s a few I could do without), it tips into schmaltz just a bit too much for me, but it’s the spark for what’s to come. What’s to come of course is largely awesome dance scenes and classic songs, songs that have real charm, wit and power, “Life is alright in America, if you’re all white in America”. Therein lies the longtime issue, immigrants not welcome. Despite all the dancing, West Side Story paints a bleak America, where the cops are fascists, women’s voices aren’t heard and macho bullshit rules. Because of this, the gangs continue to fight, to the death in fact, albeit carefully choreographed ones. With Tony reluctantly, accidentally, fatefully knifing Bernardo, after he’d done the same to Riff. It’s a proper spanner in the works, but Tony and Maria stick to their secret relationship that’s destined for trouble. My only gripes are the running length, which I’m sure could be trimmed to at least 2 hours, but it’s probably the songs that pad it out. For me I’d lose one or two of Natalie Wood’s (Maria) songs, as secondly I really don’t like her voice, it’s right up there and gets quite annoying on occasion. These are minor things though and as the film draws to it’s sad conclusion, the music lifts as the credits roll as graffiti on walls, I’m left feeling a little bit better about musicals. Spielberg is in charge of the remake, the few stills I’ve seen don’t fill me with much confidence, but I guess we’ll always have this.