In many ways, West Side Story feels like a film shingled with clichés and thin dialogue. I suppose the reason it feels this way is because it is. It’s quite amazing, then, to consider that a film with these types of blemishes should conquer its own imperfections to emerge so resoundingly victorious on Oscar night. However, I think the explanation for this apparent separation between perception and reality is really quite simple, old Sport: The film’s music and choreography are so kinetic and irresistible that it pulls the whole enterprise back from the brink, ultimately overshadowing and minimizing the detrimental impact any negative traits might pose on West Side Story.
Directed by the team of Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, West Side Story encompasses an eclectic gang of actors taking center stage, including Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. In addition to its large cast, the film also initiated 10 Academy Award statuettes into its posse, from the 11 nominations it received. In terms of Oscar trivia, West Side Story holds the distinction of being the musical with the most number of victories, including the apex Oscar for Best Picture in 1961. Both Chakiris and Moreno also took home the Golden Boys in the Supporting Actor categories, paving the way for Moreno to eventually go on to become one of only four women to have an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony victory to their credit, with Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn and Whoopi Goldberg rounding out the distinguished company.
Adapted from the 1957 Broadway smash, West Side Story is an urban retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Instead of Verona, the fair scene is laid in a gritty section on the west side of Manhattan’s claustrophobic asphalt jungle. And swapped out for two warring families, both alike in dignity, are the Jets and the Sharks, two rival street gangs, both alike in pride, angst and some resolute misdirection. The central feud is territorial, with the Caucasian Jets lobbing accusations that the Puerto Rican Sharks are trespassing on their concrete turf. Thus the two sides engage in an escalating struggle to control the streets, punking and harassing each other with a series of threats and minor skirmishes.
However, the stakes become significantly raised when Tony, the leader of the Jets, falls hopelessly in love with Maria, the younger sister of Bernardo, who is of course the leader of the Sharks. The star-crossed lovers defy the street’s conventions, leading them to carry on a secret whirlwind romance. But faced with the unalterable reality that a future together cannot possibly flourish in their present environment, Tony and Maria make plans to leave the west side in search of somewhere more accepting. In the meantime, their forbidden affair has dialed up the heat between the Jets and the Sharks, causing their hatred to collide and boil over, eventually spewing Tony and Bernardo’s blood out into the streets and on to the hands of all those involved.
The glaring drawback of the paint-by-numbers parlance is that it gives the film a distracting imbalance. The non-musical scenes feel like moldy crusts of bread in comparison to the feast of musical sequences, preventing the film from really rocketing into the stratosphere a truly great films. To watch West Side Story feels like going for a ride on an open highway that is littered with 25 mph zones and a lot of cops. The enjoyment of speeding off into the horizon is tempered if the ride is frequently slowed down by wooden dialogue and story development, so to speak.
Fortunately, the film spends the majority of its time with its foot on the gas pedal, thanks in large part to the choreography spiking the film with a nuclear, high-powered energy with destructive potential, which I mean in a good way. All of the actors, whether they be principals or background extras, leave blood on the dance floor, sometimes literally, infusing the film with a spectrum of force ranging from spicy and cool, to rumbling and sweet. Not that I’m some huge connoisseur of movie musicals, but I’ve seen my fair share to the point that I feel confident in stating that the choreography and dancing in West Side Story is unique and stylistically idiosyncratic in a way that separates it from any other film with frolic. I think this unconventional artistry is best exemplified after their big rumble with the Sharks; the Jets have regrouped in a murky delivery truck garage to figure out their next step, leading the gang into the number “Cool.” The choreography bubbles with instability and irregularity, lending it an unpredictable nature. In a way, the moves feel like jazz, in that there are all of these parts simultaneously moving independent of one another, yet combining to create a marvelous spectacle moving in subtle unison. Ironically, for a song about keeping it cool, real cool, the number crackles and sweats with enough vitality to raise the dead.
Although, as great as the choreography is, I gotta say that for me, basketball and ballet moves will never and should never be brought into a mix together. Just like there is no crying in baseball, there are no ballet moves in basketball. There just isn’t. I mean, you don’t see Kobe Bryant out there doing a pirouette before taking the rock to the rack, do you? No. And you want to know why? Because there is no ballet in basketball. I mean that settles it.
But obviously, great choreography is nothing without great accompaniment, and Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim composed some incredible tunes that inject West Side Story with snappy pulse, a broken heart and youthful rage. It’s been ages since I last watched this film, and I had forgotten what a hit parade of songs there are on the soundtrack, with recognizable numbers like “Tonight,” “Maria” and “America.” It’s a testament to the music’s enduring strength and catchiness that it has continued to live on all of these decades later by permeating different avenues of pop culture, such as Saturday Night Live, Mountain Dew commercials and even an Adam Sandler movie. It’s fortunate for the film that the music is so dominantly memorable that it helps to usher out the movie’s more lame or odd elements from one’s memory, as much as it is possible to do so.
One odd element that lightly intersects with the narrative of West Side Story is that it flirts with aspirations to be a pseudo-psychological study, attempting to touch upon deeper themes of identity linked to cultural transference, to belonging to a broken family and to being the product of a society indifferent to at-risk youth. This is on full display during the number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” as the Jets ridicule the failed attempts of the judicial system to reform them of their ways, due to the system’s unwillingness to understand them. In mock tones, the lyrics attribute their problems to being the product of abusive homes with drug addicted parents and communist grandfathers. These moments are peculiar detours that come off even more so in the form of a musical presentation. I enjoy musicals, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a format that lends itself to deep character development and meaningful, sociological analysis. For musicals to work well, they tend to have to move at a quicker pace, which typically results in a lean, condensed narrative, not one that is conducive to performing a lot of heavy lifting. The film sags whenever it tries to deliver some deeper commentary about societal breakdown or the friction generated by tense race relations. Instead, West Side Story is muscular when it is able to keep things simple, maintaining the attention on the core conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. Fortunately, for the most part it sticks to what it does best, making West Side Story an overall strong film, but a sporadically weak one, as well.
Favorite Line: During the number “Pretty,” Maria dreamily prances around the shop where she works, singing about how pretty and wonderful she feels in the wake of falling in love with Tony. At one point in the song, Maria declares, “I feel charming. Oh so charming. It’s alarming how charming I feel.” This line makes me laugh because it is so ridiculous and funny, making it the highlight of the film.