West Side Story (1961)
Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno
Written by Ernest Lehman (screenplay), Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)
Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
This movie comes with the weight of all its baggage. Granted, a lot of classic movies do, but this one a bit more than most. It’s been parodied a lot, and the basic premise (hey, it’s a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet!) has been done so often that it’s easy to lose touch with what makes this movie special. I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about it going in besides that the Montagues and Capulets were now rival gangs called the Sharks and the Jets, and that there was a LOT of dance-fighting. Both of these things are true, but there’s also a lot more going on than it looks at first glance.
Maria (Wood) is the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris). They’re a Puerto Rican street gang encroaching on the traditional territory of the Jets, their Polish rivals. Tony (Beymer), best friend of the Jets’ leader and former member himself, falls in love with her right when the turf war between the gangs heats up past its boiling point. Right when both sides are planning an all-out rumble to determine who owns the streets once and for all, Tony and Maria have to try and make their budding romance work while untangling their duty to family and heritage.
This is no straight-up retread. The story is surprisingly and deeply enriched by the change of setting. Maria is caught between two worlds — the promise of a life in the land of opportunity with someone who genuinely loves her, fulfilling her dream of America; or the close-knit community she has with her family and friends, the small Puerto Rican neighborhood that feels it can’t catch an equal break in this country. Maria’s choice reflects the basic decision that so many minorities have to make here — do you follow your optimism and try to blend into the great melting pot of mainstream society, or do you stay with your community and make that stronger, better, livelier? Re-framing Maria’s choice as one of honoring the individual vs. honoring the society that individual is born into makes her decision much more complex and difficult.
The plight of the country’s inner-city minorities wasn’t exactly a huge topic of conversation in 1961; I’m impressed that West Side Story (and the musical it was made from) had the stones to make it the crux of the story. Both the Polish Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks feel like they’re protecting the only space carved out just for them — the wider world (represented by the authority figure Krupke) is hostile and unyielding, and there’s only so much space to go around. It’s understandable that each group would want to own it; if they’re not going to get a fair shake anywhere else, at least they have this small strip of the neighborhood where they can be who they are, make the rules.
It’s the possibility of making over a small part of America in their image that resonates so strongly with these two factions. In the song “America”, Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Moreno) sings about how crappy things are in Puerto Rico, how the possibilities are endless here. Bernardo replies with tales of a wall of discrimination between his people and the outside world. If they’re going to embrace the American dream, it has to be here and now. They’ll have to take the opportunity they dreamed of; no one else is going to give it to them.
The movie’s influences extend beyond Shakespeare; a lot of shots were made to duplicate paintings of New York from famous contemporary artists of the day, and co-director Robert Wise fought to shoot within the city. He chose condemned buildings and rough neighborhoods for his sequences to really sell the small, claustrophobic world these two packs of youngsters are roiling in. It’s as much Shakespeare as it is New York, a love letter to two disparate things that actually work in surprising harmony.
The songs are breezy and fun, with lyrics that fall off the tongue of the actors so well. That’s a specialty of Sondheim, who I happen to like. The actors work insanely hard to create a world where the rough life of gang members can be expressed through something as contrary as choreographed dance, and for the most part it works. I felt myself resisting the conceit with the iconic opening number of the movie before checking myself, and you might need to do the same sort of mental adjustment. This is the world of the movie, this the conceit of the story. If you buy this one thing, accept the story in its own language, it opens up to be quite effective.
So forget what you know about West Side Story; yeah, it’s a song-and-dance-infused retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s also a mature and complex postcard of life amongst minorities in 1950’s New York that’s surprisingly intelligent. You can’t ask for more from your pop art, really.