Having picked up 10 Academy Awards upon its release the film version of West Side Story has its place assured as an undeniable classic but its one that always brings a certain nostalgic feeling for me as I took part in a production of the stage musical as a teenager (playing Diesel, conglomerated into Ice on-screen), but, 15 years on from that production, revisiting the film has opened up a new level of appreciation for it.
Once the overture fades into a series of aerial shots of New York we are dropped into a heightened and expressionistic world of teenage street gangs on Manhattan’s West Side. Over the following 10 minutes or so we are introduced to their world as movement and dance are used to tell the story of heightening tensions between the ‘local’ gang, The Jets, and the Puerto Rican newcomers, The Sharks.
As the back and forth dance culminates with a moment of real violence (albeit rendered in now PG, early 60s mainstream cinema friendly fashion) the film begins in earnest and we are led through a surprisingly tight reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet updated for a modern world that still rings true today.
This use of dance is one of the highlights of the movie as it goes on to be used as an expressionistic analogue for the venting of emotion whether its like here as tension, in ‘the rumble’ and America sequences as a form of battle or in the astonishing Cool as a means of learning to control emotions in the face of an insurmountable situation.
Focusing on Cool for a moment this is one of the less well recognised highlights of the film as it combines all the elements that make West Side Story work so well, in one sequence. The choreography is extremely tight, but in that, has a freeform feel that is appropriate for a teenage gang of misfits. On top of that the lyrics draw strongly on be-bop and jazz, with a good dose of the Beat movements use of language, to create something entirely of its time and place but also expressionistic enough to be somehow timeless and instantly recognisable as teen-speak (like Nadsat in Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange). This combines with great performances and excellent use of the camera to create an enthralling sequence on all levels.
Across the film the dance performances are flawless, while the singing varies from spot on to suitably rough bringing a sense of reality to the street toughs, helping it tread the line that musicals always have to fight between the sublime and the ridiculous and the acting is generally of a good standard too (though a few of the Puerto Rican accents wobble at times).
The story itself has enough tonal ups and downs to keep it moving for its two and a half hours with the comedic and ensemble highlight of Officer Krupke being something of a signing off point for the beginning of the tragedy borrowed from the Bard.
It is in the tragedy that the film finds its heart and its message as, while Shakespeare certainly told a gripping tale of young love and ultimate sacrifice, here it is transformed into a warning for the dangers and pointlessness of gang violence. This culminates in an amazingly well delivered scene where the heroine, Maria (Natalie Wood), takes control of the situation and seemingly brings the opposing gangs together, albeit after several of their number have paid the ultimate price.
Topped off with the classic cinema look of the period have, West Side Story is a highlight, not only of musical cinema, but of cinema in general as it uses every aspect of its production to tell a moving and effective story, put across a message, and is packed with memorable moments and performances.
Rewatching it now, 15 years removed from my first experience of it as teenager, has revealed a new side and appreciation of it for me that puts firmly in among my favourite movies and proves that musicals don’t have to be brightly coloured and ‘nice’ as West Side Story veers from the humorous to the genuinely brutal with genuine grace.