Love at First Knife-Fight
It is once again that difficult time in the cinematic calendar, when the fruit of the creative loins of Michael Bay has been loosed upon the world, and – more to the point – is filling all the multiplexes. As you might expect, I would more cheerfully drill through my own toenails than actually pay to watch Transformers: Age of Extinction, but I can hardly ignore it entirely, can I? Luckily enough, it turned out that one of Michael Bay's own favourite films was enjoying a brief revival at the local art-house, so I think in the circumstances this is an acceptable replacement. Given that only the other week I was singing the praises of the non-diegetic musical, it also makes a certain sense to revisit one of the greatest ever examples of the form: 1961's West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
Yes, it's a bit of a shock, isn't it? Bay, the maestro of overblown and incoherent excess, a fan of one of the most perfectly formed films ever released. Just goes to show you never can tell. The scene is laid, as the title suggests, on New York City's west side, some time in the early 60s, where tensions are rising between the different street gangs – principally, in this case, the 'indigenous' Jets, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican immigrants.
Jet leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) comes to the conclusion that things need sorting once and for all, and resolves to challenge Shark head honcho Bernardo (George Chakiris) to a grand combat to settle the conflict. Things become unexpectedly complicated, however, when Riff's lieutenant Tony (Richard Beymer) happens to meet Bernardo's sister Maria (Natalie Wood) at a neighbourhood dance, and the pair fall passionately in love virtually on the spot.
Tony and Maria wisely keep quiet about their relationship and battle plans are drawn up by the two gangs. But when Maria learns of the planned confrontation, she implores Tony to intervene, and he agrees, not realising that his presence will only lead to a deadly escalation in hostilities...
So, a movie about gang violence, juvenile delinquency, racism, and urban deprivation (for all that the basic plot is swiped from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) – not, you might think, the most obvious material for all-singing, all-dancing musical theatre. For a long time I was always rather amused by the somewhat bizarre source material of many musicals – race riots, totalitarian coups, anti-semitic pogroms, and celebrity murders being just a few. I am starting to think, though, that perhaps I'm getting this backwards, and that the musical is in reality the most natural way for mainstream cinema to tackle these tough topics. The overt non-naturalism and glamour of the musical form to some extent takes the hard edges off the subject matter, and gives the creative people involved a little more latitude than a straight drama might have.
I think this is certainly the case with West Side Story. There are two main strands to the plot – Tony and Maria's romance, and the gang war, and the songs punctuating the former are fairly traditional musical numbers with people singing about love and hope and their emotions. I should point out that these are still brilliantly executed pieces of work, of course, but for me all the real show-stoppers come from the other side of the film – the Puerto Ricans get the justly famous 'America', about the contrast between their hopes and the reality of the immigrant experience, while the Jets are served with 'Gee, Officer Krupke', a blackly funny dig at society's inability to come to terms with the issue of juvenile delinquency. These songs are superbly performed and choreographed – there may be other musicals with equally good songs, but the dancing in West Side Story is surely unmatched – but they're not just catchy tunes, they're cynical and very, very smart pieces of social commentary. The end results are really breathtaking.
Then again, this is a film that makes bold choices from its opening moments. Following the overture, the movie starts naturalistically enough, with the Jets holding court over the neighbourhood playground. But slowly their swagger takes on a more graceful, choreographed quality, until they start breaking out into ballet steps, and the film manages to sell this idea. Throughout, the film is doing careful, striking things with colour – at the dance, the Jets are all subtly decked out in yellows and greens, the Sharks in blacks and purples – sound, and the image – observe the way the rest of the dance fades to a muted blur as Tony and Maria first set eyes on each other. The contrast between the grittiness of much of the narrative and the almost impressionistic quality of its realisation is perfectly achieved.
I must confess to finding more stand-out moments in the first half of the film than the second, but then this is really the nature of the beast where versions of Romeo and Juliet are concerned – the young lovers almost inevitably end up being a bit too wholesome and drippy. Certainly the departure of Tamblyn and Chakiris from the narrative doesn't really do the film any favours. But it would take a harder man than me to argue against the sheer winsomeness and charm of Natalie Wood (the fact that she – and Beymer, come to that – is dubbed for all her songs somehow doesn't seem to matter, nor does the fact that she's clearly not actually Hispanic), nor the sincerity and emotion the romantic leads bring to their roles. (Perhaps the dubbing issue is why the acting Oscars for this film went to Chakiris and Rita Moreno instead.)
Superficially, West Side Story has not aged well, with all its buddy-boys and daddy-Os seeming rather quaint. But, even leaving aside the quality of the music and dancing (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are responsible for the former, Jerome Robbins the latter), the film's concern with issues of racism, immigration, and urban alienation still mark it out as relevant to the modern world. Part of me thinks this will always be the case, and that this is one of those films that will endure as long as the medium of cinema does, because in so many ways it is as close to perfect as any film I've seen. If they'd only included some robot dinosaurs, this might really be an essential film.