Seems like I’m on a musical kick these days, doesn’t it? I promise it’s no more than usual; we’re just trying to make more of a push with our AFI viewing, and West Side Story is #41 on the list. I would also add that it’s #2 on their “Greatest Movie Musicals” list, which we’re going to work our way through as well. We’ve both seen West Side Story a few times before, but as with all of the AFI films that I’m re-watching, I try to pull together my thoughts and understand the movie’s importance and influence.
West Side Story is not a favorite of mine. I first saw it when I was probably fairly young and my understanding of musicals was informed by things like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Compared to those, Jerome Robbins’ and Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet is quite a different animal. I was interested to see it again as an adult; I felt I could be more open-minded and see it with fresh eyes. But you know what? I still didn’t like it. I could see a lot of really important and good things happening, but as a whole, there are (in my opinion) some really big problems with this classic.
I hope I won’t be spoiling anything for anyone here; if you don’t know the plot of Romeo & Juliet by now, I’m not sure there’s any help for you. West Side Story moves the action to Manhattan in 1957. Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, we have two street gangs, the white Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Our star-crossed lovers are Tony (Richard Beymer), Riff’s best friend who’s outgrown the whole gang thing, and Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo’s baby sister. Anita (Rita Moreno), Bernardo’s girlfriend and friend to Maria, takes the place of most of the secondary female characters in Shakespeare’s play, while Tony’s employer Doc (Ned Glass) stands in mostly for Friar Lawrence. The biggest departure from the source material is that Maria, unlike Juliet, is left alive at the end of the play, as is Chino (Jose de Vega), who is West Side Story’s Paris.
In the world of film musicals, West Side Story is obviously ground-breaking. With music by Leonard Bernstein and choreography by Jerome Robbins, it is a true departure from the bright and shiny MGM musicals, and was surely meant to be. Both the score and the dance sequences are iconic at this point. In a way, though, it is the very contribution of these great artists that flaws the movie, which to me seems fragmented into three pieces that mesh together at points, but are more often disconnected from each other. Robbins, who conceived the Broadway play from which the movie is derived, was creating a contemporary ballet of R&J. Bernstein’s score is itself fragmented between his usual style, exemplified in songs like “Cool” and the more saccharine songs of the love story like “Maria” and “Somewhere.” And finally, there’s the meat of the piece, the dramatic story. The acting is all quite good, particularly the two leads. The problem arises (for me, at least) when you realize that neither Beymer nor Wood did their own singing. They were clearly chosen to star in a musical for reasons other than musical ability, and even though their performances are good, that fact remains and mars the overall effect. To me, it adds to the question of whether or not there were clear priorities for the film as whole.
Essentially, in watching the film, there were many times when I felt I was watching three different things: a ballet, a musical, and a play. All three of those things were well-executed, but they just didn’t seem to go together more often than not. It can certainly be argued that Romeo & Juliet is, itself, two disparate stories, one of love and one of hate, but Shakespeare’s play seems to weave those two themes together more successfully than here. Obviously, West Side Story was a huge critical and popular success, and it won countless awards, including Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I do think that, for its time, it was doing something truly different and outstanding; it was bringing the movie musical out of the last few centuries and into the present day, and for that it is certainly an important piece of work. But judged solely on its merits as a film, I don’t think it stands up to the values of the great musicals that preceded it.