West Side Story



West Side Story – The great film from 1961, directed by Robert Wise, who also did The Sand Pebbles, and The Sound Of Music. This is a very “stagely” production, as all of the dancing makes it hardly look like something that would really happen in true life (minus the spontaneous singing, of course), and some of the sets look very staged (a few are on the real streets). The film won 10 Academy awards, which really is a log. The acting is very good for the most part, especially George Chakiris as Bernardo Nuñez, leader of the Sharks, and Rita Moreno as Anita del Carmen, Bernardo’s girl (they both won Oscars). Nathalie Wood is great as Maria (the Juliet role in the play/film), although it’s obvious that it’s not her voice singing (and her Puerto Rican accent is fairly questionable), while Richard Beymer is less good as Tony, the doomed Romeo of the film. The beefy Russ Tamblyn – who fans of Twin Peaks would remember as the strange Dr Lawrence Jacoby – plays the doomed Riff. Hardly any “adults” in the whole film, which is mostly played out by the kids themselves (interacting at work, on the streets, at the dance and at the rumble.

The opening of the film features four minutes of Oscar Bernstein music against an image that we roughly recognize as New York’s west side. With the opening credits we cross the magical rooftops of New York, nice. The Jets, the Sharks, we meet the characters, Nathalie Wood gets a psychedelic spinning dress spot (the use of tailor shop items, such as puffy cloths, is very creative throughout the film), tumbling, acrobatics, wild jazz. There’s a corny love-at-first-sight haze when Tony meets Maria (there’s something later when a strategic light shines in the symbolic marriage scene). “I just kissed a girl named Maria”, love love love. Great staircase scene, wonderful singing. Trashy chick talk, and then the hilarious confrontation with Sargeant Krupsky. “Our mothers all are junkies, our fathers all are drunks. Golly Moses, naturally we’re punks.” Mentions marijuana. “For you, trouble is a relief.” After the intermission, there’s the nutty “I’m so pretty” dressmaking shop dance with scrap materials as props. As the gangs head to the rumble, and as Maria sings of her happiness to have met Tony, there’s a very creative crush of two song that works with both harmony and dissonance. Anita is horny, waiting for her Bernardo to return from the rumble (although he never will). The staging of the rumble is amazing, with kids crawling all over the chain link fences like monkeys. After the fight, and the two murders it leaves in its wake, the nervous punks sing a “keep it cool” song, with lyrics like “Got a rocket in your pocket, keep it cool boy,” followed by a nutty, edgy garage dance. The ending is somewhat anti-climactic, with the only mystery being the question of whether one or both of the star-crossed lovers will die. The closing credits are among the best I’ve ever seen, with a creative use of chalk on brick, as well as an assortment of abandoned street signs, including one that says END.

As a bonus, there’s also a 55-minute documentary, which largely focuses on the intense training that the cast went through, and the philosophy that “content determines form.” The dance was contemporary, but also had jazz and ballet elements. The documentary includes some comments by Robert Wise himself, as well as all the other writers, unit directors and actors Rita Moreno worshipped the director, and took the actors so far above what they had previously thought was their level best. Russ Tamblyn notes that Bob and Jerry wanted shorts from all angles. The prologue took two months to shoot, and we see a few scenes of the crowd watching the filming. The filming went way over-schedule – it had originally been scheduled for two weeks, but ended up being two months; there are scenes of crowds watching the procedures. There was lots of rain, but at least the crowd enjoyed being in New York City. The dance steps were customised to the characters (as you’d expect) but it needed sone work. The cast was interesting – George Chakyris had already played Riff in London production, but then Nathalie and Richard Beymer did not get along at all, and quickly separated from each other. The documentary shows Nathalie Woods and Russ Tamblyn’s original vocals, not that great. It’s interesting to note that Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane. The set design purposely included lots of red. Fire escape ladders, alleys, all. At the premiere, the audience applauded after every number. There were 11 Academy award nominations, 10 wins.

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