Often, it’s the most unlikely movies that leave the greatest effect on you. From start to end, I was dazzled by “West Side Story”, which blends somber social drama, flashy musical numbers and the most timeless of love stories, “Romeo & Juliet”. It’s constantly amazing watching how the film shifts from one mode to the other. One second you’re following the plot of the classic Shakespeare play, and then the dialogue sounds terrifyingly contemporary as prejudice is discussed, and right then and there, everyone bursts into song! Talk about your strange combination of genres!
The movie is set in the west side of contemporary New York City, in a poor, disadvantaged hood where young Americans and Puerto Rican immigrants hardly cohabit. As the movie begins, the white but poor and disillusioned Jets are trying to force out of their turf the Sharks, a gang of hot-blooded Puerto Ricans led by the proud Bernardo. They’re all filled with hate, or maybe it’s just frustration wrongly aimed. So they chase each other around the basketball court and the streets, ready to jump at each other’s throats. Pretty serious stuff, right? Well, yeah, but this is a musical, so the young hoodlums are jumping and dancing around each other instead of actually fighting, so it’s actually amusing. The “fight” is shortened abruptly when a badass cop enters the playground and puts an end to this nonsense. But the enemies are not satisfied by this outcome, and the Jets make plans to confront the Sharks later at the Friday night dance.
That’s when our couple of star-crossed lovers come in. Romeo, renamed Tony, is an idealist who’s through with gangbanging. He’s found himself a job working for Doc at the milkshake parlor, and he’s waiting for the next big thing. A few blocks away, in a sewing shop, Juliet/Maria is also dreaming away. Her brother Bernardo is trying to set her up with his buddy Chino, but she’s not interested. The night rolls in and everyone meets at the gym for the big dance. And so do Tony and Maria, and they’ll never be the same. As soon as they make eye contact, they’re in love and soon kiss. Afterwards, Tony goes to Maria’s apartment building and climbs up to her window to declare his love. They’re immensely happy and passionate but unfortunately, their peers won’t approve of their union. He’s American, she’s Puerto Rican, and they will go through the same tragedy Romeo and Juliet went through despite and because of their love.
The film was brilliantly directed by Robert Wise from a script by Ernest Lehman, and it works surprisingly well on every level. The tale of Romeo & Juliet’s doomed love affair is as wrenching as ever, and it transposes interestingly in this contemporary setting. I also liked how the film addresses some very serious social issues such as juvenile delinquency and prejudice. It’s often through song or humor, but some of the things that are said are still sad and true. And then there’s the elaborate dance numbers, which were choreographed by Jerome Robbins on wonderful songs by Bernstein and Sondheim. Most of the numbers are unforgettable: Something’s Coming (which was covered by Yes), Tonight, America (with subversely sardonic lyrics), Somewhere… The movie is bright and colorful, which is an odd choice for a story that deals with racism and poverty and which includes murders and a rape attempt. But ultimately, it all works: the story gives the singing and dancing more resonance, and the musical stuff makes the story less depressing. Definitively one of the all-time greats.