Thursday, 6 July 2017

West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story

I am sorry for this somewhat offensive introduction, but this was all I could think of for the first twenty minutes of “West Side Story”. This is super, super gay.

Starting off with a gang of young men intended to look tough ballet dancing down the back streets of New York sets the tone for the rest of the rest of the movie and I knew we had gone into bad musical territory.

Musicals have their own tropes or rules, if you will, that allows them to bend reality. This makes it possible for characters to spontaneously break into singing with full orchestral backing or twist stories into sappy-land because who cares about the story anyway. “West Side Story” takes these liberties into the extreme. I thought I had reached the limit with dancing cowboys, but, oh no, I had seen nothing yet. Dancing street gangs makes dancing cowboys seem like a sensible idea.

Replacing acting with dancing is a terrible idea and maybe the producers thought that as there was no way to save this anyway, they might as well add a few more absurdities. Caricature characters with no depth at all is easy enough to shrug off, but complete stupidity is more difficult to bear. Okay, street gangs will never win any prizes for being smart otherwise they would not be in a gang in the first place, but these are absurdly stupid. Let’s take the scene where Tony visits Maria on the fire escape. Although she asks him repeatedly to keep it quiet he insists on shouting (super nice fellow), then he exclaims that he is not afraid. Of course not, it is not him who will get into trouble, but her. Yet she loves him for it although it is an asshole thing of him to do and then they start to sing, loudly. Groan.

It took me a huge effort to look beyond these frustrations and find something of value behind, and there are things. Plenty, even.

First of all the music, which incidentally is what anybody judges a musical on anyway. I have never watched “West Side Story” before in any of its permutations, but I knew, and knew well, every single song on the movie. I had no idea they came from this movie, so that was quite a find.

Secondly, the movie touches on a number of itchy subjects that has not lost its relevance since. One is the idiocy of gang wars, a persistent problem that kills a shocking number of people and terrorizes neighborhoods. The movie seems to explain this with idleness and coolness and that is certainly part of it. I just cannot help thinking that the two gangs in “West Side Story”, the Jets and the Sharks would not need to form a gang. They do not strike me as gang material. They could dance together instead.

A second topic is that of new immigrant communities and how the existing community feels the the new ones are encroaching on their territory. Again an issues that is as relevant as ever. In 61 a cinema audience in Denmark would have no clue what they are talking about, but now we all know. I heard of some recent research in immigration that presented two historical types of immigrant. The one that embraces the new country and have economically a high success rate, but suffers the rootlessness of cutting the cultural bonds and the second that brings his own culture along and surrounds himself with his own kind. This is the easier and more tempting solution, but only postpones the integration to the next generation and have a much lower economical success rate. The Puerto Ricans in “West Side Story” are definitely of the second type and their example shows both the strength and the weakness of that model. Culturally they are, frankly, superior to those lame Jets. They look and dance far cooler and have a very strong network. On the downside they are hopelessly unequipped to deal with a life in The States and are subjected to bigotry stemming from their insularity. The Puerto Ricans can with some right claim that they are treated poorly, but their inability to let go is a large part of the reason.

This is a very interesting topic and beside the music the best part of “West Side Story”.

What actually happens in the movie I do not really care to explain. The movie won a ton of awards, everybody have watched it in one form or another and frankly, I did not care much for the Romeo and Juliet theme.

I sort of understand why fans of the genre loves “West Side Story”, but unless you are only in it for the music this is not the place to start. I found that this was not for me, but converted to a “real” movie it could have been interesting. Just by getting rid of 90% of the dancing it I could have bought it.    


  1. If you're indeed curious as to what this would've been like as a "real" movie, without all the singing and dancing and whatnot, you might want to look up one of the many filmed adaptations of this little-known work called Romeo and Juliet. :)

    Ribbings aside, how one ends up in regards to this film is really how one will end up in regards to generally almost any musical; if you're a fan of the genre, this is one of the best, but if you're not, it's one of the most egregious examples of why you don't like them, as I'm sure you're now fully aware. I'd like to say that it gets easier in terms of musicals on the List, but by this point you should have a pretty clear idea of your stance on them, and if it's not a positive one, then I doubt anything coming up will change that.

    1. I do not care much for the Romeo and Juliet story in any of its adaptions. What did interest me was the immigrant version existing culture and to some extent the gang element. That to me would match strangely with the music.
      Yeah, I have been through quite a few musicals by now and found that I like some and dislike other. The less dancing the better they fare and if the singing fits in naturally I am all for it. Singing in the rain went down very well for me. Singing cowboys is an absolute no go and for me West Side Story falls into that end of the spectrum, great music or not. There are simply limits to how far you can bend the rules before it becomes ridiculous.

  2. My problem with West Side Story lies entirely with the source material. I really dislike Romeo and Juliet. I think it's Shakespeare's most over-rated play and one that I could happily live without seeing again any time soon.

    Because of that, West Side Story is always going to be a beautifully made, wonderful production of a story I really hate. I had the exact same response to both Chicago and Les Miserables from 2012.

    1. Well, that story does very little for me too, but I could live with that if there had been more internal consistency. When the illusion breaks three times per minute I just lose interest. That is a pity because as you say, in many ways this is a great production.

  3. I'm not even going to try to argue with you on this one. At least the dance sequences have the very best music, so there's that.

    1. Ha ha, yeah, that would be a futile argument. I know how you feel about musicals and I am fine letting it rest there.
      The music is great though.

  4. I loved this one! Musicals are always hokey, but I thought every song in this was great. And Rita Moreno's performance was so good that she makes up for any of the other deficits.

    1. The music is great and referenced to this day.
      Sadly we probably disagree on everything else in this musical.