By Jess Lomas
February 13, 2014
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line . Hey, whatever. It fits! As we near the Oscars, we’re looking back on some Best Picture winners.
It’s the Jets versus the Sharks in the most stylised gang war to ever grace the Silver Screen: West Side Story. Set in New York City circa 1957, this melting pot of ethnicity sees the children of European parents, the Jets led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), fight for turf with the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Based on the Broadway play, itself inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, our star-crossed lovers enter as Maria (Natalie Wood) and Tony (Richard Beymer). Can their love overcome racial prejudice or will it end in tragedy?
A rare example of when a film supersedes the stage show, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins‘ West Side Story was the recipient of ten Academy Awards including Best Picture. Despite the change in medium, some of the performances are overplayed, as you would see at the theatre. Wood and Beymer did not sing their own parts and perhaps it is watching their lip synching (and Wood attempting a Puerto Rican accent) that distracts from the real stars of the show: the dance sequences and music.
Music and lyrics from the Broadway show are used again here, written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. A mixture of high-energy numbers such as America mixed with the soulful duets Tonight and Somewhere combine for an unforgettable soundtrack that is still referenced in pop culture today. Choreography by Jerome Robins elevates the picture, and although he was notoriously difficult on set, his rigorous regime resulted in truly inspiring dance sequences unparalleled in modern musicals.
You can’t watch West Side Story without noticing the importance of the colour red. From the opening sequence, red is used to symbolise the violence between gangs, passion between Maria and Tony, and, eventually, death. The colour palette of the movie changes dramatically between when we first meet the gangs and when their antics culminate in a sombre conclusion, red still present but surrounded and muted by black and darkness. It’s art on screen.
Beyond excelling in the musical elements, West Side Story offers a biting critique on society’s responsibility to the individual and an individual’s responsibility to their community, and what results when they turn their back on one another.
West Side Story is available on Quickflix.