By Dave Roper
The Jets and Sharks are forever brawling over the turf of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, trying to protect their space. Tony, formerly the leader of the Jets, but having more recently pulled away, meets Maria, a young Puerto Rican woman (and brother of Sharks-leader Bernardo) at a dance and they fall instantly in love. But can they be together despite being from opposite sides in a deep-seated gang war?
West Side Story is one of those musicals that either everyone has seen, or everyone feels like they have seen. For my part, it was only in sitting down to watch it for this review that I found I had never seen it all the way through, having caught many snippets of it during that period in my teens when my sister watched it on a seemingly endless VHS loop. What it is, to be blunt, is one of the very finest musicals ever committed to the screen, almost matchless in the quality of its songs, dancing and emotional resonance.
There is something about the very best musicals that simply defies the passage of time. They don’t feel dated, or become irrelevant, instead they seem to manage to touch upon timeless themes that impact as much now as ever before. WSS is like that and more, having given rise (as we find amongst the ample extras) to a community project whereby the film and stage play are used to educate and counsel gang members regarding the implications of their chosen lifestyle.
But back to the film. Many of the cast had already appeared in the Broadway and London stage productions, though often as different characters and in the case of George Chakiris (here as the elegant, poised and athletic Bernardo) as the head of the opposing gang. Rita Moreno makes a fiery and formidable Anita, Maria’s friend and Bernardo’s partner, Russ Tamblyn bounces around the screen as the nimble and physical Riff and Ned Glass cuts an impressively world-weary and melancholy figure as Doc, Tony’s boss at the sweet and soda store around which many scenes revolve.
If there are any weak links amongst the casting, then they are perhaps and surprisingly the leads. As Tony and Maria respectively Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood are precise enough, but at times too wet, too weak to convince as lovers who will overcome all obstacles to be together. It is only in the later scenes, after Tony has killed Bernardo and Maria then loses her brother and her new-found lover that they both sharpen up and become more multi-dimensional. They are clearly very much in love, but at times the sweet, puppy nature of that love grates in comparison to the passion and power of the songs, dancing and performances of the rest of the cast.
The songs are an absolute bounty of joy. America, Cool, Gee Officer Krupke, When You’re a Jet, Tonight, Somewhere, Maria. All so very memorable, with a seamless blending of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics (belying his 25 years with an astonishingly mature and varied repertoire of lyrics) and the legendary Leonard Berntein’s music. Jazz, Ballet, Samba, percussive rhythms, syncopated timing, it all fits together effortlessly, accompanied by some incredibly dexterous (and clearly physically punishing) dance routines. Masses of credit for the choreography must go to Jerome Robbins, who was also credited with co-directing alongside Robert Wise, who although endlessly demanding and exacting with his cast, nonetheless was greatly loved by them, as they testify to a man and woman among the copious extras. A parallel is drawn between the car park choreography for Cool and much of the video choreography for much of Michael Jackson’s work and as you see the Jets marching, jumping, spinning and pointing, you see the video for Bad as well. Jackson was reported to be a big fan of the film, as is pretty much anyone else you might happen to ask.
Although two and a half hours is pretty long for a musical, it does fly by, with the momentum and propulsive quality of the dances and songs deliberately and noticeably advancing the story. WSS is cited as one of the first musicals where the dances actually progress the narrative and the point is justly made that with certain dances removed, the remaining film would not make narrative sense.
WSS went on to earn a bucket load of Oscars, winning all but one of its 11 nominations. It was entirely deserving of these and all other accolades it has received and you are hereby wholeheartedly recommended to seek it out in the highest definition your viewing medium of choice will permit. An unbridled joy. You can get it most places, but why not try here?
Extras: Lots and lots and lots. Disc 1 features a song-specific commentary by lyricist Stephen Sondheim which is fascinating without outstaying its welcome. Less welcome is a redundant version of the film which skips from song to song. Instead, try the documentary on the dancing of the film, with contributions from crew members, choreographers and writers that give an invaluable insight into the enduring impact and legacy of the film. Disc 2 gives us trailers and storyboards, along with a lengthy 2001-produced documentary about the making of the film (presumably made for the 40-year anniversary DVD release). It overlaps very little with the other material, which is noteworthy on so loaded a set of discs. There is finally a more general making-of doc, which includes a wealth of additional onset and rehearsal footage and also shows us the difference between the natural and dubbed-over voices of those cast members whose own singing voices didn’t make the final cut. A really strong package.