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Entries in West Side Story [1961] (1)

Tuesday
Mar052013

West Side Story (1961)

Cities of the Damned

West Side Story will mess with your head, especially if you live in Chicago. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's zippy 1961 musical is colorful, proudly multi-cultural, and bursting with life, just like my beautiful Midwestern home. But underneath both of these photogenic surfaces wages a hyper-charged youth-culture war, fought by desperate, directionless soldiers. If you've never seen the film, I don't blame you for raising an eyebrow when I suggest that West Side Story was The Wire of its day. Sure, it's goofy in parts--and corny by the standards of a generation who can't imagine teenagers casually wearing dress jackets--but the grit, anger, and violence in this urban re-telling of Romeo and Juliet will rip your heart out in mid beat.

Set in early 1960s New York, the movie spans thirty-six hectic hours in the on-going turf battle between Puerto Rican street gang The Sharks, and their Caucasian rivals, The Jets. Lead Shark Bernardo (George Chakiris) and lead Jet Riff (Russ Tamblyn) hate each other's guts simply, it is implied, because of age-old immigrant/native skepticism. This rivalry has trickled down to the lowest levels of each organization, creating blood-thirsty monsters out of even comic-book-reading simpletons and newly minted teenagers fresh off the boat. Following an opening number that sees a cluster of Sharks wandering into the wrong neighborhood, the gangs agree to settle their score after a high school dance later that night.

Riff tries to recruit his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer) for the fight, but the punk-turned-stock-boy doesn't want any trouble. After some coaxing, Tony agrees to at least show up to the dance--which is where he first meets Maria (Natalie Wood). She's a stunner--a gorgeous and graceful young girl with the loveliest Spanish accent Tony has ever heard. Yep, you guessed it: not only is Maria associated with The Sharks, she's also Bernardo's little sister.

From here, the story develops as all such stories do, with star-crossed lovers keeping their budding romance a secret, while also remaining loyal to factions that may never see eye to eye. What makes West Side Story special is that it's a musical--meaning all the tired back-story and exposition that's meant to put us in the characters' heads is delivered lyrically, memorably, and unexpectedly.

Rather than a sad-sack monologue about growing up poor in Puerto Rico, we get the lively showstopper "America", wherein Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) offers a glamorous, consumer-culture contrast to The Sharks' pity-party. Likewise, Riff and his gang recount their childhood tribulations with the up-beat, wacky number "Gee, Officer Krupke".This whirlwind tale of neglectful, drug-addled parents, parole officers, head-shrinkers, and judges is enough to make anyone insane--and The Jets sell themselves as compelling, lovable lunatics.

It's not all fun and games for the audience, though. From the gangs' climactic knife-fight under the highway to what I can only assume was Anita's foiled gang-rape at the hands of The Jets, West Side Story turns tragic very quickly, as if Robbins, Wise, and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (working from Arthur Laurents' Broadway script) wanted to lure people in with the promise of a good time and then force-feed them a thesis on race relations. It works, and only the culturally incapacitated can watch this thing and not think about similar struggles happening in their own back yards.

Tony's elderly boss, Doc (Ned Glass), balls up his fists in frustration as these kids pretend to be friends when the cops are around, but break out the switchblades, pipes, and zip guns as soon as no one's looking. Like Rebel Without a Cause (in which Wood also starred), West Side Story perfectly captures the showy turbulence of adolescent emotions that results partially from hormones but also from an innate lack of perspective. Tony, Riff, and Bernardo fight over streets and people who they assume were theirs to begin with--and wind up losing everything over absolutely nothing.

Though musicals have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, this one might present a challenge to modern audiences. No amount of Glee re-runs or Les Miserables accolades can quite prepare you for the sight of choreographed, seemingly X-Men-strength deflection gestures and operatic warbles bursting out of perfectly good conversations. But West Side Story dazzles with great songs, greater performances, and a massive heart that makes us pull for these tragic characters It's just a shame that, fifty-two years on, so many of us are still deaf to its lessons.