West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story (1961)

They say that West Side Story is a musical, and they’re right insofar as there are songs and music, but this film has spurred quite an amazing discovery for me; I love ballet.  Sure, I was enamored by these classic songs performed as they are meant to be heard, but for me the vocals would be nothing without the incredible choreography, which rivals An American In Paris in its beautiful control and clever delineation of character.

It’s rather well known that West Side Story is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet.  Loads of pleasure in a first time watch comes from working out how the film corresponds to the play, though thankfully the film doesn’t burden itself with an exact transposition.  The nurse, for instance, becomes ‘Juliet’s’ sister, the masquerede ball becomes a 50’s-style dance, and the ending is altered to avoid the expected cliches.

And of course there is the inspired decision to set West Side Story in New York City.  This is a deliberate and very successful choice.  Where Shakespeare’s ‘fair Verona’ represents a city of exoticism and love yet also unrest, New York, as we have seen from the Best Picture canon, is often used to convey contemporary America as a melting pot of ideas and people – consider The Apartment, You Can’t Take It With You, and even Gentleman’s Agreement.  In retaining focus on the meeting of groups/gangs, West Side Story comes to represent contemporary preoccupations of the time.

I consider the most significant idea within the film to be found in the moment of ‘the clash’.  More even than the meeting of Portuguese and American gangs, West Side Story is about the meeting of contemporary culture with classical forms of art.  Consider the ways that the images of the graffiti-laced basketball courts are juxtaposed against beautifully choreographed dance routines.  The rough-as-guts inhabitants of the streets dance to a resplendent orchestra, and a knife-fight is performed with a liquid grace unfounded at an actual murder scene.  New York truly does come to represent a melting pot, not solely in terms of ethnicity but in it’s broad cross-section of art and culture.

I think that West Side Story may well be the epitome of the New York film.  There’s an interesting two lanes here, where as much as New York stands for America it also stands as itself.  Nowhere else can be New York City, and it is my opinion that this film would be read entirely differently if it were set in a different place.  I’m expecting New York to have been done for a little while now – I think it’s expended all of it’s juice with West Side Story.