Saturday, June 20, 2015

Musical Watch: West Side Story (1961)

the plot in a nutshell

If you haven't seen the 1961 film, West Side Story, coming into it cold in 2015 will feel like you're watching a movie about an alien world, but it's a musical that comes from a time and a place, and I'd hope that at least the music, choreography and cinematography would work for you.  Maybe not.  The oh, so clever audiences of the modern era have cleverly deduced that people don't actually sing and dance spontaneously and have rejected the genre.

For those of us who kind of grew up with the play and/ or movie (I saw it the first time at a local theater in Austin when I was about 13, the movie at least twice in high school and have seen the movie now about five or six times by my reckoning), it can be easy to take a lot of the actual story for granted.  I know I was shown the movie in high school alongside Romeo and Juliet as we compared and contrasted the two stories as a class, and that's a good starting point.  But I can't help but notice that being 40 and watching a story about the passion of teen-aged romance is a whole other burrito from watching the movie when your hormones are firing a million miles an hour and wanting to talk to girls and punch things are the two driving factors in your teen-age brain.*

The original Broadway show included the talents of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim with choreography by the famed Jerome Robbins, and had an immediacy in a post-WWII New York that's going to be lost on suburbanites of today who've bypassed a lot of the social immediacy of the play and film - a timely concept back when the phrase "juvenile delinquency" was spoken with complete sincerity by the media, educators, psychologists, etc... and reflected the burgeoning class of the "teen-ager", an idea that didn't really have a place in the parlance prior to WWII, back when you went to school and worked or dropped out of school in order to work.  Now, kids had some leisure time and the press was picking up on the bad habits the kids were picking up on the streets.

Further, New York's neighborhoods were changing and ugly clashes would arise between the long-standing residents of the neighborhoods and their new neighbors, often of different ethnicities.

The movie itself is directed by Robert Wise and choreographed again by Robbins (and I sincerely think Robert Wise is the great, underappreciated American filmmaker.  Check out that filmography.).  The camerawork and directing of the movie - which contains a lot of scenes on the actual streets of playgrounds of New York - are remarkable.  Despite the frantic choreography of Robbins, the camera stays with the motion and is an amazing eye, working through and staying with complex dance numbers.

But, you know, it's a complicated movie.  It wants to preach tolerance and understanding, but then casts Natalie Wood as Maria.  Distracting enough, but Rita Moreno - a bonafide Puerto Rican - is actually quite a bit better than most of the rest of the cast, but, you know, Anita's a more interesting role than Maria, so what the hell do I know about what role she would have wanted?  But Bernardo is also cast by a non-Puerto Rican, which...  Jesus.

If you can get past the typically problematic casting of the era, the movie does have some interesting bits - not the least of which is that it's based on Romeo & Juliet, so you know it's going to end poorly (spoilers?).  And, as I referred to - it escalates into tragedy from what feels like a fairly goofy opening, including a scene that almost never occurs in movies - the one where people actually care that something awful just happened and are working through it.  It's not just 20 seconds of weepiness or reaching for a bottle, there's a whole number of teens freaking out realizing what they did.  If the movie and musical had stayed on the same path as the first act, it would be remembered as the work of a time and place that didn't resonate and couldn't last.  Yeah, it takes some context to get the specifics, and the "Dear Officer Krupke" certainly helps clear up that picture.  But if we can still follow the story of Romeo and Juliet, hopefully we can keep up with a movie only 50 years in the past.

Anyway, I expect this is one of those movies that a lot of people were forced to watch back in high school and are still hung up on the resentment of not watching a newer movie.  And I always feel a little odd about that.  The movie is what it is - a product of its time.  But that doesn't make it better or worse.  And if you can't handle musicals, I can't help you, kid.

*your mileage will vary depending on how your personal biology treated you


mcsteans said...

"Brick killed a guy. Did you throw a trident?"

This movie has so much dancing it makes me want to take a nap afterwards. There's one number you can literally see the knee pads underneath everyone's pants.

Matt A. said...

Reading through the backlog of posts, I came across this one and realized that your mom took me to see this with you - I think at the Cap City Playhouse.

My main memory from this was when Tony was killed, I started singing "We Don't Need Another Hero.". I don't know how that ranks in the audience member Bad Behavior Scale, but, you know, teenagers.

The League said...

That bit of Steans Family History is still well remembered. And, yes, everytime I see this movie, I think about that. Heck, I don't even pass that corner of 4th street without thinking about that.