West Side Story is as much a time capsule piece about the city it was set in as it is a hymn to a love forbidden. Race replaces family, on the gang-led streets of Manhattan in the musical version of the Shakespearean tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. It garnered ten Oscars at the time, and 50 years on it still oozes class. Potent, visceral, and sharp it demands attention something modern audiences might have a problem with given its 2 and half hours runtime but in glorious Cinemascope the experience is mesmerizing on the big screen. Almost every thing in this musical is spectacular, insofar as musicals should be; audacious, dynamic and fun.
A rare opportunity to once again see the Puerto Rican Sharks and the Irish Jets ‘duke it out’ for turf supremacy in a short run season at the BFI. Caught in the cross-fire are the desperate young lovers Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer miming their way through the Sondheim/Bernstein classics. The songs still resonate though, none more than the witty social commentary of immigrant life in ‘(I Like To Be In) America’ which oscar winners Rita Morena and George Chakiris serve up with a ‘Ñu Yorican sizzle. Their chemistry is electrying in the dance numbers as well, all the choreography; magical, confident and perfect. This being a musical however, the film always deflates somewhat during the dialogue, especially the romantic dialogue. Natalie Wood was delicate and warm in Rebel Without a Cause six years earlier of which she received an oscar nomination at 16 years of age, but in this she looks flat and neat. That aside, West Side Story is edgy. It’s a New York Story through and through. Brash and showy, it captures the essence of the street, and how important it is to self identity, for teenagers, at least. Also, there is this wonderful outsider status that pervades the film which parrallels the futility of the gang-land struggle and the powerlessness of the law trying to prevent it. The lyrics too are that little-bit more biting than the family friendly musicals of the era, maybe tame by todays’ standards, but it does portray a city heating up to the culture clash and the generational change that was to follow.
Stylish in every possible way, Saul Bass on titles alone is worth the price of admission. His name equals the highest quality and his credit sequences are inspiring. The opening colour bursts capture the feel of that mid century modern period deliciously and then it unfolds to the monumental aerial shots of Manhattan. From there you’re hooked. To many this is the pinnacle of musicals, it’s hard to say otherwise, it’s definately a ‘hall-of-famer’, but for now it awaits new viewers with open arms and old ones back to keep falling in love.
West Side Story is back in the cinemas at the BFI 16th September 2011.
Directors: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Stars: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer
Runtime: 152 min