Turn Back the Clock
West Side Story
Distributed by: United Artists
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I was a kid, my mother introduced me to a romantic musical which offered a new take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. We watched West Side Story in the late 1970s and every time it has appeared on television since, despite the fact that I must have seen the film a hundred times already, I can’t help but sit down and watch. When I found West Side Story on DVD, I bought it figuring that I would be much happier with a version of the musical sans commercial interruptions.
West Side Story is a more modern version of the Shakespeare tragic romance in which two young people from feuding families fall in love, realize that their families will never allow them to be together, devise a plan that will allow them to be together but die in each other’s arms when that plan goes horribly wrong. An adaptation of the Broadway musical, the film version of West Side Story takes place during the summer of 1957. Gang violence is a normal way of life on the Manhattan streets as rival groups seek to wrest control of their particular sections from other gangs. In this case, an American gang known as the Jets are attempting to keep the Sharks, a rival gang of Puerto Rican immigrants, from taking over.
Riff (Russ Tamblyn), leader of the Jets, has had enough with the Sharks encroaching on their turf and has decided to settle things by challenging Bernardo (George Chakiris) to a rumble. Despite the fact that his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer) no longer considers himself a member of the gang, Riff asks him to support him at the local dance when he offers his challenge to Bernardo. Tony reluctantly agrees, but when he arrives at the dance, his attention is distracted by the enchanting Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo’s sister. The feeling is mutual. Drawn to each other despite their differences, Maria and Tony experience love at first sight, much to the extreme displeasure of Bernardo who quickly whisks his sister away.
As their “families” prepare to do battle, Tony and Maria only desire each other. Realizing they can never be together while the Jets and the Sharks are at war, the devise a plan to end the battle. Unfortunately, the plan goes horribly wrong, resulting in the deaths of both rival gang leaders, with Tony holding the knife that kills Bernardo. In true Shakespearian tragedy fashion, Maria and Tony still believe they can be together, but a lie told in anger brings about a tragic ending for the lovers.
The storyline of this film is a romantic tragedy, but it also serves as a lesson to its viewers. This movie asks us to explore how we see other people. The Jets and the Sharks are at war with each other mainly because of their perceived differences, but the reality is that they aren’t all that different from each other. The members of the Jets just want a place where they can feel special; a place they can call their own that no one can take away from them. Many of them coming from broken or poverty stricken homes, they have already had a great deal taken from them and being in a gang with people who support them makes them feel strong and it gives them a status they don’t have at home. So much has been taken from them at home that they long for the streets and the status they have on them. The main difference between them and the Sharks is where the members of the gangs were born. The members of the Sharks came to America to escape the poverty of Puerto Rico, but in doing so, they find that they have vastly different cultures, different languages and different looks. This makes them outcasts in their new home, so they band together, becoming stronger and gaining confidence. They don’t want to just belong, they want to own the streets just as the Jets have fought to do so. The two gangs are so similar, but they can’t see past their own prejudices that are based on surface-only observations. The film warns us against these prejudices and the violence that so often accompanies them.
But West Side Story has not become so famous based upon storyline alone. The main attraction is the music. Anyone who has ever watched the film may not remember the names of the characters, the location it takes place in or the dialogue in West Side Story, but they can remember the songs with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. You want proof of this phenomenon? A co-worker was walking down the hallway the other day snapping his fingers in a specific rhythm. I heard him and began singing, “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way.” I promptly finished, “From your first cigarette to your last dying day.” After watching this film last weekend, I couldn’t get America out of my mind and began humming the tune later while grocery shopping with a friend. That friend picked up where I left off and struggled to get it out of her head the rest of the day. And just this weekend, I found myself performing a duet with a co-worker. The song: Maria. "I just met a girl named Maria, and suddenly that name will never be the same to me." The lyrics of that song perfectly describe the way one feels when they first fall in love with someone.
What is it about the music of West Side Story that makes it so memorable? For one thing, Leonard Bernstein creates a musical score that is so artistic and moving that you can’t sit still. It makes you want to dance along with the actors. For another, Steven Sondheim’s lyrics are easy to relate to. They express great feeling and capture our hearts instantly. Many of them are fun to sing along with and the lyrics to all of the songs are quite easy to remember.
Combine the great storyline with amazing music and lyrics and you still don’t have the whole picture. For that, you must check out the incredible dance numbers choreographed by the Jerome Robbins for which he won an Academy Award. I wish I could just break into dance like that at my job and look one tenth as good. The dance numbers had a great Latin flare during scenes with the Sharks and a very acrobatic nature when dealing with the Jets. Some of the dance moves performed in this film are so awe-inspiring you find yourself staring at the screen wondering at the actors’ abilities.
Okay, so we’ve got great storyline, music, lyrics and dance numbers. So what about the acting. Well, I struggle to understand why they chose Natalie Wood for the role of Maria when she couldn’t sing the songs (they were dubbed by a professional singer) and exhibited a horrible Puerto Rican accent. Richard Beymer was a bit over the top in most of his scenes and his singing was also dubbed, but the chemistry between Wood and Beymer was undeniable. In my opinion George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn were the real stars, perfectly believable in their respective performances as Bernardo and Riff. Rita Moreno was great as Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita. (Fun fact: Chakiris actually portrayed Riff in the London stage version of West Side Story and quite a few of the cast members from the play reprised their roles in the movie.)
In my opinion, and apparently the opinion of many other people out there judging from how well the film and the Broadway musical still sell after all these years, West Side Story is a classic romantic tragedy whose popularity will never fade. I love watching this film and will probably wear out the DVD I have before long.