West Side Story (1961, dir. Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
It’s 1957 in the West Side of Manhattan and tensions are brewing between the white American gang The Jets and their Puerto Rican rivals, The Sharks. The local police aren’t much better than the gangs but make a weak effort to stop these young men from becoming violent. In the midst of the brewing gang war are Tony and Maria. Tony is a former member of the Jets and still friends with them while Maria is the little sister of The Sharks’ leader Bernardo. Choreographer Jerome Robbins, Conductor and Musician Leonard Bernstein, Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents take the classic Shakespeare play Romeo & Juliet and place it in this setting, contemporary to them at the time, to find connections between that iconic play and the violence they saw erupting from urban youth.
It’s hard at first to talk about West Side Story in a context removed from its monolithic legacy. The imagery in this film has become so monumentally iconic it can be overwhelming. The film has also aged roughly due to its hyper-choreographed movement. It’s not just dance numbers that have characters flowing across the set, but every single movement feels meticulously planned and plotted. Modern sensibilities have come to lean fairly cynical right now throughout pop culture. This self-aware, snarkiness inspires an urge to laugh at the earnest performances throughout West Side Story, but such a mindset would undercut an experience that is incredibly exhilarating and ultimately deeply emotional.
The cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp paired with the dynamic choreography of Jerome Robbins and heavy percussion orchestrations of Leonard Bernstein creating such a strong sense of movement and energy. Because the film focuses solely on juvenile delinquents this violent force generated by these filmmakers propels us through the story. Bernstein personally found the movie’s adaptation of his score to be “overbearing and lacking in texture and subtlety” and there is a good argument to be made. However, I personally enjoyed how carried away by the music I felt. It was perfectly reflective of the dissonant and frantic actions of the rival gangs. They constantly feel like they are on the verge of exploding in rage.
The Romeo and Juliet elements didn’t click for me until near the end of the film after tragedy befalls the Jets and Sharks during their rumble. Sondheim’s lyrics in “There’s a Place For Us” strongly resonated the pain Tony and Maria are going through and are tinged with such bittersweet longing. Lyrically I found “America” and “Officer Krupke” to be the stronger pieces. They both highlight Sondheim’s ability to layer social commentary into songs while keeping them entertaining and developing the characters beyond flat stereotypes. I have to believe some of the lines in “America” were shocking for their time. “Life can be bright in America/If you can fight in America/Life is all right in America./If you’re all white in America.” Those sound powerfully relevant even in today’s political climate.
The production design by Boris Leven was another huge standout. The sound stage sets throughout the film feel so massive, yet are decorated with just enough litter and refuse that they feel like real lived in sets. I found the rumble set to that perfect balance of simple but cluttered. Leven’s strength likely came from his degree in Architecture, so he is able to re-create slices of New York City and reflect the feel of tense, balmy summer days and nights. The basketball courts are another set piece that recurs, and I saw as reflecting the trapped nature of our leads. They are like a prison, a maze of chain link fences, and end up being the site of the tragic climax.
It’s always wonderful to finally sit down and see a film that has been an icon since before you were born, that has seeped to thoroughly into the public consciousness. There is a pressure on films like that to live up to their legacy and I have to say West Side Story proves why it has become a film preserved as reflective of the American experience.