Page 1 of 3
Fox / 152 Minutes / 1961 / Unrated / Street Date: November 15, 2011
My initial introduction to West Side Story was not a pretty one. It was only the second film I saw after I began my film school career, and the audience was just not having any of it. We were a bunch of 80's movie brats more interested in the "classics" like Star Wars and Jaws than an antiquated musical version of Romeo & Juliet. The film went down like a lead balloon. People hooted, hollered and laughed loudly whenever any character broke out into song - it was as if we had never heard of a musical before, and just couldn't understand the form. For years I figured my experience was a microcosm of my generation's attitude as a whole towards the musical, at least until the recent rebirth of the genre with Moulin Rouge! and Chicago. But for a while there, I wasn't so sure...
In the intervening years I've had a chance to revisit the film more than once, and my understanding of why it remains so difficult for modern moviegoers to appreciate the musical has become obvious. Free of cynicism or irony, West Side Story is unabashedly romantic and old fashioned, offering no apologies. It's Big Emotions as song and dance, all pure sincerity burned onto celluloid. It is of my opinion that today's audiences just can't handle that, nor care to. Good or bad, we live in a world of postmodernism, and I for one doubt we can ever go back.
So let it be said that today I myself enjoy West Side Story quite a bit, but admittedly it is not my favorite example of the genre. I am probably not being fair, but I still have problems accepting Hollywood's overt racism at the time. Natalie Wood as an ethnic heroine!? (Yes, it was early-60's Hollywood, but still!) It is also easy to see how the film's lack of "realism" - the mean streets of New York have never looked like so much fun - can be perceived as corny by today's teens raised on MTV and Eminem. I also feel the film runs a bit too long at 152 minutes. Perhaps a few of the numbers could have been pared down or dropped entirely? Some sequences feel like mere excuses for another big production extravaganza, and aren't supported by the narrative as a whole.
Yet West Side Story is so cheerfully exuberant that it is impossible not to love despite its faults. The film is widely considered to be nothing more than a musical update of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, but lovelorn teenagers from opposite sides of the tracks were nothing new even back in the early 60's. The film is really a spectacle for song and dance, and on that level it succeeds brilliantly. Taking home plenty of Oscars, the film shares a common trait with many of co-director Robert Wise's other early efforts despite being dissimilar in theme. (Wise would take home the Best Director trophy with Jerome Robbins, becoming the only co-directors to ever share the honor.)
Bursting with enthusiasm, the glee in which Wise and Robbins stage all the song and dance is a tour de force, the blueprint for how to successfully mount a movie musical. I still have problems with the casting because I feel it lessens the film's authenticity, but the performances are flawless (especially Oscar-winners Rita Moreno, who probably should have gotten the lead, and George Chakiris.) It's also hard to argue with any film that looks this grand; every aspect of the production is an example of a craftsmen working at the top of his or her game. The set design, art direction, costumes and scoring are some of the best Hollywood has ever produced. In terms of the sheer pleasure that technical brilliance gives an audience, West Side Story remains unrivaled.
That said, if stuck on a desert island with only one Robert Wise movie to take along, I'd still probably pick The Sound of Music. But I'm sure just as many would pick West Side Story. It's cheerful, romantic, exciting and a joy to behold. Movie musicals don't get much better than this, so forgive Hollywood's prejudices and just enjoy the spectacle. And never, ever, see it with a bunch of snotty film students.