The Good: Good music, Moments of direction, Some inspired performances, Moments of plot
The Bad: Long stretches where little/nothing happens, Lackluster resolution, Some vocal performances, Light on character.
The Basics: Long in getting into the main narrative, West Side Story sings and dances its way around having actual substance.
I, honestly, am not a huge fan of musicals. Truth be told, there are very few that I get excited about enough to see more than once, though I do enjoy one or two. I tend to like them more in person than in cinema, though, which is probably why I liked Spamalot and have been dreading the potential to remake Spamalot back into a movie. But my current project for the year demanded I take in a few musicals and tonight's was West Side Story. I had seen West Side Story back when I was in elementary school and I remember enjoying it quite a bit.
I wish I could say the same about how I feel about it now. What once seemed creative now seems ridiculous, what once passed for edgy now appears as sloppy and the part of me that thrilled as a child to the less nihilistic ending than Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet (West Side Story is a modern-day Romeo & Juliet) now just seems like a cop-out and a letdown. While West Side Story has some decent songs, it has some cringeworthy performances as well and there is an erratic sense to the movie. This is exceptionally easy to say about a movie that spends the first six minutes with a slow color change on a drawing while playing music.
On the West Side of New York, two rival gangs, the Jets and the predominately Puerto Rican Sharks get into some minor scuffles. This draws the attention of Officer Krupke who tries to put both sides in their place. Riff, the leader of the Jets, and Bernardo decide that they are ready to end the street fighting through one battle between a selected champion for either side. They plan on meeting after a dance at a neutral location to have a meeting to determine the exact nature of the fight. So Riff goes to the slightly older Tony to try to bring him out of retirement (of sorts) and back to the Jets. After much cajoling, Tony agrees to help Riff out.
However, at the dance, Tony spies Maria and the two almost instantly fall in love. They see one another and while Tony resists Riff's repeated requests to take on Bernardo, who happens to be Maria's brother, the Sharks and Jets meet for their planned battle. In that, Riff is surprised by Bernardo's knife and Tony arrives at an inopportune moment to witness his friend getting killed and he kills Bernardo. As the gangs spiral out of control, Maria and Tony try to keep their love together and secret, lest it endanger them more.
West Side Story is a musical and much of the film's violence actually happens through elaborate dance numbers. The music is generally light and poppy with songs like "When You're A Jet" and "America" defining the backstories and views of the primary characters. For the first ten minutes, though, the movie is just Jets like Riff dancing around, interrupting a basketball game at a local park only to give the ball right back to the kids who they took it from and the like. In other words, the Jets seem more random agents of chaos than any sort of group that stands for something. The animosity toward the Sharks seems to be largely over the ethnic differences and here is where the 1961 film truly falls down.
While thematically the point of West Side Story rightly ought to be that there are no fundamental differences between the Sharks and the Jets, cinematically it becomes an exceptional problem that both gangs looks so much alike. While the initial scenes feature the Jets as primarily blonde youths and the Sharks as tanned black-haired young men, the movie becomes jumbled quickly. First, Tony is a tanned young man with black hair and second in many of the scenes at night, the lighting washes the Sharks out so they look pretty much caucasian like the Jets!
The love story between Maria and Tony is truly a "love at first sight" experience and here directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins actually use the medium well. After establishing the section of the City in dispute by the Sharks and Jets through wonderful aerial shots, when Tony and Maria meet for the first time, the directors blur out everyone else in the dance hall. Thus, they clearly show that the characters only have eyes for one another. The love story is (mostly) modeled on Romeo & Juliet and it was adapted from a book by Arthur Laurents. Laurents and screenwriter Ernest Lehmen replace the famous balcony scene from Shakespeare's play with a scene on a fire escape and it works. Substantially there is a similar emotional resonance and it works.
The love story between Tony and Maria also leads to one of the film's best songs, "Somewhere" which is repeated a few times, at least instrumentally. But outside the romantic couple, the characters are largely monolithic and archetypes more than characters. Krupke is a stereotypical racist cop, Bernardo is the parody of the Puerto Rican who lives in the U.S. but pines for "home," and Riff is the typical aimless youth. While Anita and Maria wonderfully counter Bernardo's strange sense of not being American, the others go unchallenged and from a character point of view, the film is very unsatisfying as a result.
Instead of developing the characters, West Side Story tries to distract the viewers with long dance numbers filled with a lot of movement, music and long breaks from singing in favor of just dancing. After waiting for the movie to begin - the DVD offers a similar intermission which was part of the original theatrical release as well - the long dance stretches just seem like filler. The movie is padded out in all of the worst places and not developed in the ones that actually matter.
Finally, the resolution to the film is not as dark or emotive as Romeo & Juliet and those going into it looking for a modern version of that tragedy will be left unsatisfied. Sure, there are casualties, but in the end the resolution comes more through a sense of random chance than either tragic flaws or actual love.
On DVD, West Side Story is available in a pretty lush two-disc special edition which will please those who like bells and whistles. In addition to having the full theatrical version (intermissions and all) the movie includes a commentary track. As well, there is an entire bonus disc of extras, mostly featurettes on the making of the movie and the music within it, which will please anyone who likes West Side Story or musicals in general.
Alas, that is not me and as I returned the disc to its case, all I felt was a sense of relief that my tastes have grown since I was in middle school and that I could recognize the flash from the substance. West Side Story is more of the former than the latter.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is online here! Please check it out!]
For other musicals, please check out my reviews of:
Repo! The Genetic Opera
For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.