Friday, December 23, 2011

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story ★★★★★ 5/5

There are a few movies that define and separate true movie lovers from people who just like movies. Among them are Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and West Side Story. Your regular movie lovers might not get these films and be able to appreciate what they have done for film. But, a true film lover can understand and embrace these films and see them for more then what they are.

With a film like West Side Story there is no need to really expand on the plot. Everyone who loves movies enough to be interested in the top 1001 movies to see before you die has surely already seen West Side Story and understands why it is on the list. But to be consistent with the theme of the blog let's give a little breakdown.

The Jets and the Sharks are opposing gangs in the West Side of New York City. In classic Romeo and Juliet style, a boy and girl representing opposing sides fall in love. The love is forbidden, misunderstood and rejected by those around them. The forbidden love affair continues despite the opposition. The result is fatal. But out of the death comes reconciliation and an end to the hatred between the two groups.

Simple enough? Oh no. There's far more to it then that. This musical broke the mode of musicals years after the genre had essentially died out. Previous musicals were giddy and whimsical. Romantic follies with extravagant numbers. Plots and themes were simple. West Side Story however was dark and political. Social issues run rampant through the film. Racist remarks and dialogue propel the hatred between white American raised kids and immigrant Puerto Ricans. Teen delinquency is addressed as a direct cause for the kids gang involvement. A struggle exists not just between the two gangs, but the kids as a whole against authority. Societal issues are a major component to this film, making it just as much of a case study of social complexities as a musical.

As a musical, there is no denying how incredible the movie is. The choreography is astonishing. every movement clearly relays emotion like no other musical has. Smoothly and elegantly the musical numbers transition in and out of the film. The lyrics by Stephen Sondheim replace traditional dialog in a manner that makes the musical acts fit snugly in the movie without feeling out of place. Songs like "I Feel Pretty," "Something's Coming," "Maria," and "America" capture the mood and essence of the film better then any dialog could. Hand in hand with the songs comes the dancing. The choreography is acrobatic and entertaining. The dance numbers are not pointless, nor do they lack meaning. every snap of the finger, kick of the leg and turn of the head conveys emotion. "The Jet Song," "Cool," and most effectively "Dance At The Gym" bring emotion to the screen and clearly demonstrate what the characters are feeling. Perhaps "Dance At The Gym" is one of the film's many finest moments. The tension and excitement are clearly visible when the kids are asked to form a circle and dance with whomever they are lined up with when the music stops. The dancing is frenzied and chaotic. Disdain for the selected partners is clear as is the resistance to authority. Then as Tony Wycek (Richard Beymer) meets Maria Nunez (Natalie Wood) everything literally becomes a blur. Perhaps this is one of the greatest transitions in the history of film. "Cool" is another example of how the film relays emotion. The song lyrics, the facial expressions, the body movement. So many emotions are expressed in tis song and each character deals with the events of the film in a different way. All those differences are melded together in this one sequence with such a brilliance. These scenes are hard to turn away from. So much is happening on screen so fast and characters are actually developing and changing during these numbers.

Another worth while scene is "Tonight." A song that basically takes every character and group in the story and magically combines every viewpoint of the night's expectations into one amazing number. The filming of this scene alone is a true masterpiece. Director Robert Wise did everything right. Not just in this scene, but in the whole movie. From the placement of the actors in every scene to the clothes they were wearing.

You don't have to wait long when you start watching this movie to be caught up in the fine production. The opening scene is a cinematic treasure. A camera hovers over the city of New York moving East to West. Eventually zooming down into the city and centering on the Jets immediately setting the scene as the gang that owns the street.

Of course it would be ridiculous to talk about West Side Story and not mention Rita Moreno who played the feisty Anita Nunez, a role that earned her an Academy Award. Her performance is exceptional, as is Natalie Wood's. One often overlooked performance in the film is that of John Astin. While he is better known as Gomez Addam's from The Addam's Family TV series, his role in West Side Story is exceptional. He appears briefly in the film at the dance sequence and in his efforts to bring the feud between the Jets and the Sharks to an end, he displays the fear adults have of delinquent youth. While watching this and noting that Officer Krupke (William Bramley) is in the background at the dance, one realizes that 1961 may not have been so different as it is today. Often people remark about how sad it is that there needs to be police and security in schools. This movie is a reminder that even in 1961 there was a need for law enforcement to maintain order at social functions for kids.

There is no question this film belongs on the list. A winner of 10 Academy Awards, and a soundtrack that holds the distinction of holding the #1 spot on the Billboard 200 for 54 weeks - longer then ANY other album - West Side Story is cinema perfection. Like I said in the beginning though, you have to really appreciate and understand film to fully get why this film is ranked so high and held with such esteem. It's not just the acting and the music. It's the cinematography, the costumes, the colors, the symbolism, the editing. It's everything about the film. If you can take that all in and appreciate every bit of that then you understand why this film is so powerful.

Yes - you have to see this movie - and on Blu Ray it is even more captivating then ever before.

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