Cinemas are still trying to bounce back from pandemic-led closures that took place in the last two years. If there is a film to get people back into the cinemas, a musical that is both fantasy and reality, timely and timeless, dramatic and exhilarating by one of the major Hollywood filmmakers of our time, it might just be West Side Story, says Dr Julie Lobalzo-Wright from Film and Television Studies.
West Side Story is undoubtedly one of the most iconic films Hollywood ever produced. Released in October 1961, it ended the year as the highest grossing film at the Box Office and took home ten Academy Awards in April 1962. The pedigree of the film is undeniable: adapted from the smash Broadway show that debuted in 1957; ran for over 700 shows; won Best Musical at the 1958 Tony Awards; and brought together the talents of famed choreographer Jerome Robbins, music composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright and scriptwriter Arthur Laurents, and the recently departed genius of the American stage, Stephen Sondheim. Add in that the musical was inspired by William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and it is unsurprising the film adaptation was such a hit.
The story of star-crossed lovers in multicultural New York and the rival street gangs (the Jets and the Sharks) endures as a major part of our cultural lexicon to this very day: from Larry David meeting an ‘Officer Krupke’ on Curb Your Enthusiasm (2009) to Adam Sandler and Jack Nicolson singing ‘I Feel Pretty’ in Anger Management (2003) to a Vanity Fair spread in 2009 where photographer Mark Seigler ‘reimagined’ the film with contemporary stars to coincide with a revival of the musical on Broadway. The stage musical and film adaptation are intertwined through the exposure many people have to both, from community productions to the various re-releases of the seminal film (a 4K remastered version was released for its 60th anniversary last year).
The nine-minute opening prologue, shot on location, establishes the film’s distinctive style- the Jets snapping their fingers and dominating the streets, leaping over the chalk outline of this gang’s name on the playground; the introduction of the Sharks through Bernardo’s bright red shirt and hand across the red wall on the ‘bad’ part of town. As Martha Shearer has established in her book, New York City and the Hollywood Musical: Dancing in the Streets, this sequence scaled back its intensions to shoot on location, but still maintained what makes the film ‘visually arresting’ which is the ‘uneasy’ compromise between film director Robert Wise’s vision for an ‘air of reality’ in the film and Robbins contention that it should be ‘imaginative’ to coincide with the musical genre's fantasy instincts. This tension filters through the film, uncovering the instability of the Hollywood studio system in the early 1960s, while also gesturing to socio-political issues such as immigration and the gentrification of American cities. The film also features spectacular dance numbers, demonstrating Robbins’ explosive chorography that sought to express as much as possible through dance, and songs that are now considered part of the Great American Songbook, such as “Somewhere” and “Tonight.”
Yet, visually, the film is stunning, and this may be its greatest legacy. Memorable examples include: The “Dance at the Gym” when Maria and Tony lock eyes and all other dancers are blurred; Tony emerging from the dance, bathed in a purple light, to sing about “Maria”; the “marriage” between Tony and Maria in their makeshift church in the back of a bridal shop; and the final shot at the playground where one spotlight centre’s the audience’s view.
The question begs to be asked, if this film is so iconic, why has Steven Spielberg produced a new adaptation? The connection between the two may not seem obvious at first, but answers may found in the director’s large body of work.
Spielberg is a boomer, born in 1946, and an early cinephile, making homemade films as early as 12 years old. He has frequently made films about childhood (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)), father-son relationships (Catch Me if You Can (2002)), comic book series (The Adventures of Tintin (2011)), and historical films, especially events that have shaped his life as a child born after World War II (Saving Private Ryan (1998); The Post (2017)). I would suggest that there is an overlap here between cultural products, historical events, and family dynamics expressed in Spielberg’s oeuvre and present within West Side Story. The musical and film was a cultural touchstone for many boomers, especially articulated through the generational divide between the kids (who sing and dance in the film) and the adults (who do not). Furthermore, the film’s attention to race and “The American Dream” merges with Spielberg’s own interest in identity, exhibited in The Color Purple (1985), Amistad (1997), and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). He is a genre filmmaker who, after tackling the musical, appears already set on experimenting with a new genre - the western.
West Side Story is still relevant, not just to Spielberg’s own filmic curiosities, but to our overall culture. Any film that includes a song like “America” with its cutting remarks about commerce, ethnicity, and privilege will remain germane to our contemporary period (especially during a pandemic). This is also a classic film that is attempting to redress criticisms levelled against the original, such as the casting of white actors for some of the Puerto Rican roles. Press releases for the 2021 film has stressed that every Puerto Rican character was portrayed by actors from "the Latinx communities".
8 December 2021
Dr Julie Lobalzo Wright is an assistant professor in Warwick's Department of Film and Television Studies. Her research interests include film and television stardom, musicals, masculinity in film, Hollywood/American cinema, British cinema and television, popular music and cinema, and animation.
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