Having a bad week combined with having discussed the movie a bit on a recent episode of Geek Juice Radio made me want to spend time with one of my comfort movies, West Side Story. It’s a movie I love, easily placing among my top favorites of all time, and can watch and still enjoy as much as the first time whenever I want it.
West Side Story was released in 1961 – 54 years ago – telling a story about rival gangs living in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan and makes some statements about poverty, racism and gang culture. However are the points it makes still relevant 54 years later? Is the film’s style still culturally appreciable after so long?
There is a lot of amazing choreography in West Side Story from the very beginning. The prologue of the film, almost without any dialogue, sets up the characters and the rivalry between two gangs, The Jets – a bunch of white kids mostly descended from European immigrants, and The Sharks, a gang of Puerto Ricans. The Jets are dancing in the streets, literally dancing, skipping around and doing pirouettes and it’s really neat looking in my opinion. Then they fight The Sharks and they’re dancing around too. It’s remarkable choreography by Jerome Robbins and feels a lot like a ballet, and one does not link the tough life of street gangs with ballet. This works visually, however, the way everything feels at once choreographed but natural, and the way that the film replaces dialogue with dance to convey the same point.
Movie musicals, in general, are a thing of the past. Today, outside of Broadway, musicals don’t resonate with the movie-going public. Once in awhile we get a musical in theaters these days, the only one that was an acclaimed hit was Chicago. Oh sure, Disney films like Frozen are musicals but in that “for kids” animated venue it feels like tradition. There was a huge HUGE glut of movie musicals throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s. For awhile if something was moderately popular on Broadway it got a big film adaptation. Most of these feel like the big spectacles they are but West Side Story is different in that it doesn’t feel like a spectacle. Certainly there IS a sense of grandeur to some of it, an orchestra three times what the Broadway production had, elaborate sets, shot on what was prohibitively expensive 70mm film, but there’s no grand set pieces or gigantic music numbers which one sees so often in musicals. The music and the choreography feels like it’s part of the action of the film as opposed to existing for the sake of spectacle. The dancing conveys emotion and delivers information about the characters – it just doesn’t look pretty for pretty’s sake.
It works when you’re not thinking of it as a musical, when you don’t think these people are dancing. The songs underscore the emotions of the characters while the choreography serves as a sort of metaphoric visual for their thoughts and actions. It works, it allows the movie to deliver a whole lot more than just dialogue would allow. It also helps that Leonard Bernstein’s music + Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics + Jerome Robbins choreography all work so wonderfully well together.
West Side Story is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I’m not going to delve in to exploring THAT relationship because it’s been over discussed and that happens to be my least favorite Shakespeare play. Tony is Romero, Maria is Juliet, Riff is Mercutio and Bernardo is Tybalt. There, go write your damn high school essay on it and let’s move on.
Though it was a “modern” interpretation of the play in 1961 – is it still a modern adaptation? Certainly a lot of the slang is antiquated but the characters and the way they act are not. Even in 1961 the things these characters say and do is rather edgy. When writing the lyrics Sondheim wanted this to be the first show with cussing and while quite a few musical numbers were rewritten for the film to cut down on the lyrics that wouldn’t get past film censors, you can still see where Sondheim originally wrote the words “fuck” and “shit” before people told him no. There are still topics addressed in the story that weren’t things brought up at the time. The number “Gee, Officer Krupke” offers lines like “Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks.” and “My sister wears a mustache, my brother wears a dress,” These two lines alone caused the film to be banned by the BBC because of its mentions of drug use and sexual ambiguity.
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That whole song itself expresses an idea contrary to public opinion at the time. It was believed that juvenile delinquency, ever on the rise, was a social disease. These were bad, BAD kids corrupted by other criminals and society had to fight a good fight to clean up crime to stop it from influencing the minds of innocent children. A movie like Angels With Dirty Faces for instance gives us a social message of a criminal serving as a bad role model to youth. West Side Story places that blame on the parents, on the authorities. It points out that these kids have no other options other than delinquency and crime not because of any corrupt influence but rather because their parents, teachers, police have pushed them into this place. Prior to this youth crime was looked at as “a good kid that just got led down the wrong path,” In West Side Story that thought is expanded upon to say “this is the path YOU told them to take though.”
That is a theme still relevant today – as parents shift the blame for their kids actions away from themselves, away from home and onto the influences of some other corruption. “Oh no, it’s not my ignorance of my kids’s behavior that caused them to act out – it must be that video game or that music.” We try to stop bullying in school by punishing the behavior of bad kids because they’re no good – but how often do we talk to the bully to see what their motivations are? Yeah, West Side Story makes a strong point that’s still relevant today.
Then let’s look at the issues of racism and immigration discussed in West Side Story. A good deal of this is brought up in the musical number “America” as the Puerto Ricans debate about the pros and cons of life in America vs. where they came from in Puerto Rico. We get lines that bluntly state this fact like:
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Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America.
Life is all right in America.
If you are white in America.
I barely need to make a mention of recent controversies like Ferguson or what’s going on in Baltimore right now to show that the racial issues discussed in West Side Story are still very hot topics in contemporary America.