West Side Story (1961)
I have never really been a massive fan of musicals, feeling they are too cerebral for my taste, not really grounded. When no film is really that grounded in reality, it’s a form of escapism. Adding to that there are some fantastic musicals that I have in fact seen and enjoyed. Turning then to the much talked about musical that takes the action of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet from the streets of Verona and moves them to the streets of New York City in West Side Story (1961) which had me hooked from the first time we hit the streets as we are introduced to the rival gangs of the Sharks and the Jets. A clever transitions from rival families even in the sixties no longer really exist unless you are in the Mafia. The two gangs as we iconic-ally strut their stuff making themselves known to each other. The clicks that echo the youthfulness of the street hooligans who think they know best.
Amongst all this street carnage we found something more than testosterone, something that is blossoming which could change two lives forever. Maria (Natalie Wood) of the Puerto Rican immigrants and Tony (Richard Beymer) who both see beyond the mess they are associated with. Made even clearer by the theatrical special effects that marry the cinematic and stage versions of this musical that transport us a realm of fantasy, literally blurring the image to focus on the young couple.
No musical would be a musical without the music that has made it last this long now over 50 years now as a classic. Each one with its own youthful energy that grabs your attention, not one moment of my time was torn away when they were pouring their hearts out over the numbers which have become pieces in their own right.
Dealing with not just issues of street gangs but imigrations which sees new problems of social cohesion. And that of modern life for the teenager and family life. Who find themselves by joining a gang to give themselves an identity. Only age and experience which comes all too late for most of the two rival gangs. We see after a dance that war is on the cards, something which Tony the oldest of any of the gangs wants to stop, clearly more mature, even when blinded by love.
Another major part of this is the choreography by Jerome Robbins who brings the streets alive with grave and style for the kids in these gangs who instead of using violence use dance to show dominance. Bringing new meaning to dancing in the streets in sets that are not overly theatrical, extended the everyday backstreet’s of New York to that of the stage. Blowing up areas to become far bigger than they really are.
The film has a pulse, not just of the streets but of youthful energy, fun-filled whilst still dangerous. Added with the charm of its age, whilst at the heart is a tragic love that tries to overcome all the strife around them. Breaking from the traditional play I was surprised by the ending that would have been too gruesome for the streets, Maria doesn’t take her own life to be with Tony instead only talks of it in threats to scare both gangs who have exhausted themselves in the violence of the film.