Friday, August 28, 2015

AFI Top 100: #51 "West Side Story"

Richard Beymer & Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961)

Every musical we approach on this AFI Top 100 list makes me happy, simply because there aren't that many. The 1960's were a popular time for musical films (during the decade four of them won the Oscar for Best Picture), the first of which was our #51 film, West Side Story in 1961. Adapted from the stage musical that took Broadway by storm four years earlier, it puts a modern twist on Shakespeare's tragic tale, Romeo & Juliet. Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, this film's popularity can't be overstated, as it combines epic choreography with addictive songs, all against the backdrop of urban social unrest.

It's the story of dueling street gangs battling for turf in their New York City neighborhood. The Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), are a white gang being pushed out by the Sharks, a newly immigrated group of Puerto Ricans, banned together in the face of rising anti-Latin sentiments. The leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (George Chakiris), and Riff hope to ignite a gang war, but when Bernardo's young sister, Maria (Natalie Wood) meets and falls in love with former Jet, Tony (Richard Beymer), the question of loyalty threatens to tear both gangs apart. Despite the warnings from Riff, Bernardo, and Maria's best friend, Anita (Rita Moreno), their love will not be swayed, even by death.

The characters' struggles, be it the social or physical struggles of life on the street, or the emotional struggles associated with love and kinship, it's all told through song. Less an opera, more a musical ballet, West Side Story lets the music tell the story. From the Jets' warehouse freak-out during "Cool" to Maria's love-struck fantasy during "I Feel Pretty," the songs quite literally make this movie. Alright, I take that back. The choreography from director Robbins certainly doesn't hurt. Wild and frantic, it is masterfully done. The cinematography is completely informed by the choreography, as the camera dances beautifully around and through the set alongside the actors.

Now that we've touched on the good stuff, let's get to the bad. Alright, "bad" might be a rather strong word. Less good, maybe? Either way, the movie's best qualities relate mostly to the material its filming, not the filming itself. The sets are grand and the cinematography is sweeping and the art direction is colorful... in that letterbox/Technicolor way the 1960s loved. But it's also hokey when it tries to be subtle. This movie is about as subtle as a freight train, and the decision to blur out sections of the frame to suggest that "the world has faded away" whenever Tony and Maria lay eyes on each other is evidence of this.

It's quite literally ridiculous, and while it may have been a trendy stylistic choice that made sense in 1961, it only dates the film now. It's the directors' way of saying "Yes, we think you're dumb and you won't understand, so we're here to help." No, guys... we get it. You hired pretty solid actors here, and they do their job [mostly] effectively, with the exception of that tricky little singing bit. Maybe throw some trust their way to at least emote properly? Hmm, too late, I guess.

Also, the evolution of the topic of race relations speaks to that dated aspect. Racial divides have progressed in modern times to deeper discussions about privilege, regardless of socio-economic status, and the film feels hollow in its heavy-handed, obvious messaging. It still succeeds in establishing tensions, but we are left wanting a more substantial statement. It might be in there, but if it is, it likely wasn't intentional.

Either way, this film ignited my love for the gorgeous Chakiris and quadruple-threat Moreno; they're the ones that give the film its personality. "America" might be one of the best musical numbers ever, and it's because of them. As characters, Tony and Maria have depth, sure, but they're both completely blind to their surroundings, which makes them more than a little annoying. Granted, their love duets are stunning, still, but I credit the songs there, not the character development. Meanwhile, Bernardo and Anita have the strongest non-singing and non-dancing sequences in the film, by far. Anita's assault in the soda shop at the hands of the disgruntled Jets is what won her that Oscar, and the first moment in the movie, even after all of the gang battles, that made the audience think nothing was off-limits.

The older I get, the less impressed I am by West Side Story. It's a timeless musical, but not a timeless film. As one of very few musicals on the AFI Top 100 list, the recognition shouldn't a surprise to anyone, but I can't imagine it'll hold its spot by the time 2017 re-evaluates. But we'll see. Being a memorable favorite for movie-lovers is sometimes all it stand the test of time.

And with that, my friends, we've hit the halfway point of our journey. Onto the final 50 films. xx

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © United Artists]

Check back next time for #50 on the list, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us! We'll be having a marathon of the entire trilogy to mark the #50 milestone!

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