(If you don’t see the video at top see it on Youtube)
A few days ago I saw a video of a scene from West Side Story on the blog The Year(s) of Living Non-Judgmentally. I love West Side Story but haven’t watched it in years. In fact, I had bought the 50th Anniversary Edition of the Blu-Ray and it was sitting unopened on the shelf. So I watched it over the weekend.
There is a lot to be said about this 10 Oscar winning film. Leonard Bernstein’s score is fabulous. I’m a huge fan of all of his music, but his combination of Jazz and Contemporary Classical in a Broadway setting went so far beyond anything of its day. Some of the music made the pop charts.
The dancing is remarkable. Has there ever been such high energy dance filmed?
In the past when I’ve watched the film I also half laughed at it. Today’s gangs would eat the Jets and Sharks alive! And, despite themes about racism there are no dark faces to be seen.
When I watched it last weekend those complaints went away. In fact, I can think of few movies released in the very early 60s (1961!) that still ring as true or as relevant.
The violence has been transformed into dance, but you know it’s there. Swear words have been edited out, but if you listen to the rhythm of the words you can tell exactly which profanities they are replacing. Knives and guns are talked about through out and result in the death of several cast members. The uselessness of pop-psychology on the gangs is laughed at.
What gets me, though, is that if there are villains in the movie it is the police. The Jets want to control their street and will rumble anyone who they see as a threat. They have wiped out rival gangs in the past. To them the Sharks are rivals like any other, and the fact that they are from Puerto Rico is just a small extra in the fight. The Sharks have come to “the land of opportunity” only to find closed doors and hatred. They create the gang for self preservation, not for hatred. And then comes the police. They don’t want street fights, sure, but if there has to be any they’d like to see the Puerto Ricans run out of town, the streets “cleaned up”. The police actually offer to help the Jets in their fight.
The plot is very simple, just a reworking of Romeo and Juliet. But the work as a whole is very complex. It is long and involved but well worth a watch.
If you haven’t seen the West Side Story in years, or if you’ve never seen it at all, do yourself a favor and carve out some time for this fabulous film. It is one of the greatest films of all times.