Film: West Side Story
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.
Before I started this journey, I had a track record with musicals. I don’t like them much, although there are some exceptions. If we disregard those exceptions, though, I had basically two opinions on musicals. First, if I’d seen it, I didn’t like it. Second, if I hadn’t seen it, I didn’t want to. Those few others were held up as the exceptions proving the rule that musicals leave me cold. I don’t like something that purports itself to be the real world, but contains choreography and orchestras evidently hidden around every corner. Of the musicals that inspired my wrath, one of the chief ones was West Side Story.
Oh, I know its long and storied history. I know that it’s based on Romeo and Juliet, and that it won a shit-ton of Oscars. I know that the songs are generally regarded as some of the finest in the history of musical theater (and by analogy, film). But I hated it, admittedly more on the general principle that it’s a musical rather than for any concrete reason.
So I’ve watched it again. I still don’t love it, but now I have reasons more sound than just it’s a musical and therefore icky.
Let’s start with the ending, and yes, I’m going full-bore into spoilers here. West Side Story has been around for 50 years, is highly acclaimed, and based on a story that’s been told for 400 years and was itself reminiscent of ancient Greek tales (Pyramus and Thisbe come to mind). If you don’t know how Romeo and Juliet ends (or for that matter how West Side Story ends), it’s your own fault at this point.
Bluntly, they mess with the ending. The whole point of Romeo and Juliet is that the star-crossed, tragic lovers both die, and do so from a misunderstanding. Maria (Natalie Wood) survives the film. She threatens to kill herself, but doesn’t. So this major theme, this significant part of the ending, is simply ignored. I’m not saying I want Maria to die; I’m just saying that her death is sort of an important part of the tale being told here.
Next, let’s deal with the fact that our characters here are, essentially, punks. These are not heroic characters except in their own minds. They are juvenile delinquents bent on fighting to protect a little patch of ground. And, of course, they seem to spend a lot of time practicing their choreography and singing as opposed to, y’know, doing gang stuff.
Sorry. But they are delinquents, with the exception of Tony (Richard Beymer), who has a job and has done his best to get out of the gang world. His gang, the Jets, is run by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and is made up of American mutts of various ethnic backgrounds, but all born in New York. The rival gang, the Sharks, is entirely Puerto Rican, and run by Bernardo (George Chakiris), who happens to be Maria’s brother. Of course, he is overprotective of his sister and most especially wants her to have nothing to do with the white kids, Tony in particular.
And there are some pretty good fights, and a bunch of songs that go around them. The Jets suggest one big rumble with the Sharks to decide who gets to go where, and Tony convinces them that it should be fists only, and only one member from each gang. Why? Because he is immediately enamored of Maria and she of him, and so he’d like there to be some measure of peace between the two gangs. Of course, everything goes wrong. Bernardo kills Riff, Tony kills Bernardo, and then all of the Sharks want to kill Tony, who only wants to run away with Maria.
It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the songs aren’t good, or that the dancing isn’t good, or even that it is poorly staged. It simply comes down to the fact that I don’t like it very much. I’m not a tremendous fan of the story, and that’s a big part of this. I don’t love Romeo and Juliet in terms of Shakespeare’s canon—there are a number of his plays I like a hell of a lot more. And that really damages my opinion here.
It’s also long, and could probably stand with a little chopping here and there. Perhaps a song here or there to get us to something a bit under 150 minutes. It could do with some trimming, although in all honesty, we could shave off a good 8-10 minutes by getting rid of the essentially pointless overture and unnecessary intermission.
Would I like it if I liked the story? Well, probably. The songs really are good, and it is beautifully filmed. In fact, the story is really the only place I can find real fault here. And that’s something that no film can overcome.
Why to watch West Side Story: It’s a classic musical for a reason, and it’s based on Billy the Shake.
Why not to watch: There’s that whole “it’s a musical” thing.