Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

West Side Story

West Side Story's Tony (Richard Beymer)  and Maria (Natalie Wood) give a 1950s
twist to the Romeo and Juliet balcony--Shakespeare at his best.
Robert Wise, West Side Story producer/director.
In reading the title above, if you've already started humming or singing Tonight, or Maria, or maybe I Feel Pretty, chances are, sometime within the past 50 years, you've fallen under the street smart spell of Robert Wise's and Jerome Robbins' West Side Story. When I wrote naming the top ten American movies of all time (06-17-12), I was forced by the others to relegate this musical masterpiece to number ten. It was the only musical on that list and with good reason. No other Broadway musical adapted to film, before or since, has ever come close to the soaring spiritual uplift of this Romeo and Juliet inspired masterpiece about a bunch of street gang juvenile delinquents sprinting and dancing their way across the streets of Manhattan's lower west side. It's gritty not pretty like My Fair Lady. It's tart, if not downright bitter, unlike Wise's syrupy sweet, Sound of Music. Even today, after some fifty years, it's still authentically front-page relevant, unlike Singing in the Rain, or especially, simpering-silly Grease. Only the 2002 Miramax production of Chicago comes close to capturing the filmed-on-the-streets immediacy Wise demonstrates in this, the high point in his lengthy career.
The Jerome Robbins move that became the West Side Story's dance trademark.
The nearly nine-minute prologue of West Side Story, despite it's length, stands in my mind as the best pieces of opening cinematography ever created. It sets the pace, sets the scene, introduces the characters, winds the tension to the snapping point, doing all this with little more than a half-dozen words of dialogue and flat-out the best choreography ever captured on film. Leonard Bernstein's overture, coupled with Jerome Robbin's tense, yet graceful choreography, and Wise's on-the-money directing and taunt editing, forms a triumvirate of talent demonstrated again and again over the course of the next 152 minutes. Add to this a young, vibrant, yet highly experienced cast of performers, and the mix truly does, to employ a trite, over-used, film trailer phrase, "explode on the screen."

Co-director Jerome Robbins demonstrates for George
Chakiris the dance move seen just above in the film. 
When the screen version of the Broadway hit was first being developed by Walter Mirisch and his brothers in the early 1960s as part of a 12-picture deal with United Artists, the obvious choice for producer and director was Robert Wise. Wise had experience in film-making dating back to the 1930s when he was film and sound editor for the old RKO studios. At the age of 35, his work with the legendary Orson Wells earned him an Oscar nomination as sound editor for Wells' classic Citizen Kane. However, some twenty years later, Wise had, at that point in his career, never even been involved with a musical film, much less directed one. So, Mirisch brought in the Broadway production director/writer/choreographer, Jerome Robbins mostly to handle the complicated dance scenes. Then, about halfway through shooting, when the production began to run over budget, they summarily fired him. Nonetheless, his contribution to the film's artistic values was so important, Wise insisted upon sharing directorially credit with Robbins. His decision won them both Academy Awards.

Fresh faces, fresh energy, even after fifty years, West Side Story
has lost none of its freshness, as seen here in the current Broadway revival.
Fifty years is a long time for any film to remain at the top of the heap in its genre. Filmed in the early 60s (it was released in 1961), West Side Story was based upon the 1957 hit Broadway play, based upon Robbins early experiences growing up on Manhattan's lower East side, with a plot influenced by, based upon, borrowed from, or perhaps some might say, stolen, from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. (Robbins wasn't the first or the last to do so.) In any case, no one ever trafficked in stolen goods so adroitly or with such artistic flair. Despite what might seem to be a somewhat dated background, the film, West Side Story, even after fifty years does not look "dated." There are no computer-generated special effects to subtract from the sheer talent displayed by the cast. Wise even eschewed the special effects photography of his day. Wise was "old school," working with talent such as Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris, slated to later become Hollywood legends in their own right. So, go right ahead with the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim West Side Story song you've been singing all this time. You're not showing your age, only your good taste.


No comments:

Post a Comment