Thursday, October 21, 2010

1961: West Side Story

This updated, musical version of Romeo and Juliet set in New York City tells the story of two rival gangs: the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks.  Tony is a co-founder of the Jets, but he is becoming disillusioned with the gang life.  His best friend Riff convinces him to go to a dance, where he meets Maria.  It's love at first sight, but it turns out that Maria's brother Bernardo is the head of the Sharks.  This doesn't bother Tony or Maria, but it really bothers everyone else.

While this story is incredibly depressing, it's also incredibly good.  They took a classic tragedy about how meaningless hate ruins lives and modernized it, introducing racism and gang warfare.  Even if the story wasn't as powerful and moving as it is, this would still be worth sitting through for the music.  The songs are fantasic, and the score is positively awe-inspiring.  And then there's the dancing.  Even the fight scenes are dances: magnificent, intense, perfectly-choreographed dances.  A lot of times, Broadway musicals lose some of their magic when they're transferred to the screen.  Granted, I never actually saw West Side Story on Broadway, but I think this must be one of the exceptions.  The filmmakers used the camera to enhance the storytelling of the dances, rather than letting it limit the audience's experience.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that this film is flawless.  Natalie Wood was a wonderful actress, and a very good dancer, but she was not Hispanic, let alone Puerto Rican, which I thought made her an odd choice for Maria.  She also did not do her own singing, which is not at all unusual, but they could have at least given Marni Nixon screen credit.  Also, a lot of the acting in this film seems forced, but that's probably because the primary focus in casting was to find people who could handle the intense dancing.  So, despite its shortcomings, this film deserves to be called a classic, and it certainly deserved to be named Best Picture of 1961.

Next up: Lawrence of Arabia

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