West Side Story (DVD, Decades Collection) Reviews

West Side Story (DVD, Decades Collection)

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"here you are free and have pride, long as you stay on your own side"

Aug 7, 2003 (Updated Oct 15, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Amazing choreography, peppy tunes, nice pastels, caustic humor, and chutzpah.

Cons:Lacks the gritty realism of the Sound of Music or the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The Bottom Line: Almost five stars; I love Rita Moreno and the fast songs far more than I hate Natalie Wood or the slow songs. Sappy, ridiculous, thought-provoking, funny, and brilliant.


There are lots of ways to win an Oscar Award for Best Picture, but usually, ballsiness is not one of them. Call it gall, nerve, that’s the quality that makes for an indie film. Maybe a Best Picture could tolerate a small amount of quirk, for example West Side Story’s abstract opening, where the overture is played over a screen that shows two, slowly shifting colors: a background, and a dense forest of vertical lines that suggests the skyline of Manhattan, or maybe a spilled bunch of needles in which you’re supposed to find a haystack, or maybe a bunch of sheep that have all received electric shocks and have their hair on end. It goes on for several minutes, enough time for the audience to wonder if the film projectionist is asleep and overlooking a catastrophe, but the overture is nice, and maybe that could be overlooked.

But then comes about the sheerest chutzpah I’ve ever seen in a musical. As the line drawing fades away into the photographed skyline of Manhattan (right the first time!), and we pan over the city’s spectacular skyscrapers in lower and lower swoops, we zoom in on a teenage gang, Polacks in 1950s getup: they are snapping their fingers. As the big-band music hums with submerged menace, we see this gang – the Jets, their chalked declarations make clear – swagger across their territory, expressing their ownership of the streets: in ballet. They interrupt a basketball game, swipe the ball, pass it a few times, scornfully toss it back: in dance. Over the course of – I didn’t time it, but I’d swear it’s ten minutes or more – we see them in a sequence of encounters with a rival Puerto Rican gang (the Sharks), with all the suppressed violence of a cat-and-mouse game where the mouse weighs ten pounds and has claws. An isolated boy races off seeking his peers; an outnumbered mob waits in the comfort of a planned ambush; superiority is asserted, then unsettled, as the personnel mix changes. Even a few punches are thrown. All choreography, all rhythm and grace even when struck, not a word spoken or sung. Those arrogant little finger-snaps whenever the threat fades; those tenement brick walls and iron gates and fire escapes, real New York City clambered over with the polite superiority of a primitive playground revisited by members of the Olympic team. We the viewers know exactly what is happening, watch the power struggle, and for far longer than our patience is supposed to last, we are told none of this. Decades later, lucky music fans would be (rightly) enthralled as members of Stomp turned New York City into a percussion kit, but next to this, making noise is easy. No one had ever made silence like the gangs of West Side Story: Best Picture, 1962.

Obviously, at some point someone will speak, even sing. Some of what they speak and sing, you can already guess. The Jets are the dominant gang on this street: yes, they know, it’s only a street, a little piece of a big world, but it’s theirs, and they’ve fought off challenges before. New York City is changing, though: it’s not all the Poles and Hungarians who founded this country anymore, there’s intruders now, newcomers. The Sharks haven’t backed off when challenged, haven’t recognized a losing fight: sometime soon the Jets need to give them a fight. A fair fight, of course, no Jet has ever backed down from fist on fist, but these Hispanics, who can know? They might have knives, or chains, or blackjacks, or tire irons. They might have guns. They’re different, and it’s important to be able to meet them on their own terms. One way or another, it takes a rumble.

Some of what is spoken is less obvious from the start. There’s this guy, Tony, he founded the Jets and helped them through their toughest battles. But he’s left charge of the gang to Riff; Tony’s gone straight, becoming Doc’s assistant at the candy store, and he acts like he like it. Tony needs to be involved, needs to support his mates. There’s this big dance tonight, where the rumble will be provoked and scheduled, and Tony keeps talking about hanging around the store instead, helping Doc close. Finally he’s persuaded to come, though: he’s been having these dreams that his world will open up, get bigger and brighter, and who knows? Maybe the dance has something to do with that.

Nice melodrama. Some of what is spoken, though, is downright unexpected: ballsy. When Officer Krupke, patrolling, reminds the Jets to keep calm, the kids take after his absence with a vicious mockery, not just of Krupke, but the entire adult power structure, taking turns playing a cop, a judge, a psychiatrist, a social worker. They beg: “Dear kindly Judge Your Honor, my parents treat me rough/ with all their marijuana, they won’t give me a puff!”. And relent: “It’s just his neurosis that oughtta be coibed/ he is psychologically distoibed”. They interpret: “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived!”. And disinform: “My grandpa’s always plastered/ my grandma pushes tea”. They open up: “Dear kindly social worker, they say go earn a buck/ like be a soda jerker, which means like be a shmuck/ It’s not I’m anti-social; it’s just I’m anti-work”. And scatter: before, at least, the real cop returns. But make no mistake: the kids are cleverer than the cop. The kids are even, in their simple egalitarian desire that all challengers should equally be stomped out, more tolerant than the cop. The Jets and Sharks will make some early progress towards truce; it’s the (white) police who will screw that up.

********
Hippie propaganda in 1962? Naah, just a healthy cynicism. The kids are “no good, we’re no good, we’re no oithly good”, but with some help, maybe, from the semi-adult Tony, they can negotiate out some compromises and make things work. Kids have passion: Tony’s life change turns out to consist of a sudden, requited swoon on seeing a new female dance partner. Kids can see past superficie, when all they need is love: so what if Tony’s new dance partner is Puerto Rican? (Yes, we’re supposed to pretend Natalie Wood is Puerto Rican.) Kids are witty and alert: the Sharks’ discussion of immigration with their girlfriends, in snappy brassy 6/8 time, scores points for and against America. “Everything free in America”, smile the girls; “for a small fee in America”, append the boys. “Free to be anything you choose”, cheer the girls; “free to wait tables and shine shoes”, specify the boys whose incomes the girls still expect to help use. Bernardo, the Sharks’ leader, claims “I want to go back to San Juan”. “I know a boat you can get on”, his girlfriend teases (“bye-bye” her friends coo). “Everyone there will give big cheer”, he insists; “Everyone there will have moved here”, she replies. Point, set, and match; but if she wants him to be an American, well, American male teens hold war councils. Even if American girls wish they didn’t.

Kids are enraged and violent, you know: they can screw compromises up. They also, in a scene that amazes me in a 1962 movie, begin a brutal gang-rape (interrupted by Doc before any clothing is torn). But the authority figures are clueless. The cops are racist. The parents don’t really want mingling either: don’t betray the old country, or (if you’re a Polack) the new one. The MC at the dance makes a noble attempt to initiate a partner-switching routine (“We’re all here to meet new friends”), and Riff and Bernardo give their leaderly nods of approval; but when the music stops and Polack would be paired with Puerto Rican, the teens rush towards their own partners instead. The contrasting dance styles are, as always, superbly choreographed and fun to watch. But what silly man thought he could keep them from contrasting?

Only Doc, the candy store owner, gives the adults dignity and sense, and even he tries the “When I was your age” bit. “Get this clear, Doc”, he is corrected, “My Dad was my age. My oldah bruddah was my age. You were never my age”.

**********
I’m not sure, in a musical, that it matters whether you know how it ends; but I’ll avoid telling. Before it ends, we get: continued creative shots, including a solo dance by Tony with a bright bold color scheme of red brick wall, white shirt, and blue jeans, with various pastel undergarments floating beautifully above across the ropes between apartments. We get lots of energetic singing, including some expert interweaving, as tender ballads (Tony’s love story) counterpoint the plainer, gruffer singing of the rival gangs. We get clever framing shots that know darn well how clever they are, like when Tony and Maria (the girl) first see each other, and all the other dancers start to float around them as if through several mirrors while the two newly-infatuated teens approach and meet each other. Sound cheesy? It looks new and good, and psychologically, it’s just right.

I don’t want to make West Side Story’s daring sound absolute. Racism against Puerto Ricans were a daring subject for a 1962 musical to tackle (the debating couplets also include, for example, “Buying on credit is so nice” vs “One look at us and they charge twice”), but New York City also had a boom in its black population, and no one was dumb enough to think the audience would root for Natalie Wood in blackface with an Afro. I think two or three of the love ballads were really putrid, and it doesn’t help when the invisible woman who sings for Natalie reaches for a higher, more removed vocal range, like she thinks citizen Charles Foster Kane will sponsor her opera career if she just gets as good at it as his second wife was.

The violence and skeeziness of urban life is absurdly simplified, made na´ve and far cuter than life. And, in typical romance tradition, the star-crossed love affair actually has a lot of implausible things helping it along: at least two key Puerto Rican characters are a hell of a lot more understanding of Tony, at a crucial point, than I or probably you or probably Mahatma Gandhi would be.

So? We’re spoonfed a caustic and challenging view of urban life coated with the high-fructose corn syrup of love at first sight. We’re enticed to watch groundbreaking, frankly bizarre and brilliant experiments in choreography by the promise of more conventional dancing and slapstick to come. We get to take urban menace just seriously enough to think about, without getting anything 1/10 as frightening as Bedford-Stuveysant in even a Tuesday twilight. We’re given a movie, in other words, that would still be widely available and loved more than four decades later: available, loved, and unique. The world is full of “realistic” movies that don’t accomplish any of that.

Some of those movies are excellent, of course. So is this one. Lucky thing we have both, huh?


Recommend this product? Yes

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Considered one of the most popular musicals of all time, WEST SIDE STORY earned director Robert Wise an Oscar for Best Director as well as nine other ...
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