|West Side Story (Special Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Monday, 31 March 2003|
It's hard to imagine any American over the age of, say, 15, who wouldn't have seen "West Side Story" before now -- but if you're one of that handful, or if it's one of your favorite movies, this two-disc "Special Edition" DVD is the ideal means of adding it to your film collection. The color is saturated and beautiful, the wide-screen images (the film was shot in 70mm) are as handsome as they have ever been on home video, and the superbly scored and mixed sound track, with its numerous songs and dances, is reproduced well for home theater systems.
The only difficulty is that despite its many brilliant elements, "West Side Story" never entirely shakes off its stage orientations (despite what's perhaps the greatest opening sequence of any musical), and Arthur Laurentz's original theatrical script is reproduced faithfully in Ernest Lehman's script -- including its flaws. "West Side Story" is a good, nearly great, musical movie, but it's shackled by its flaws, and doesn't quite reach the heights it could have. At 152 minutes, it's also somewhat overlong.
The story, in case you didn't remember, is of course a variation on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," even though Shakespeare's name doesn't appear in the credits. The songs, a couple of which have become standards, were by the impressive team of Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim. The lyricist followed this with "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and later to the greatest string of outstanding musicals in the history of American theater -- none of which have been filmed.
On the hard concrete streets of, as the title says, the west side of New York, we meet Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and his gang, the Jets, all white. In the justly famous opening scene, the aerial camera glides slowly over downtown Manhattan, looking straight down at the vertical city. Finally a fenced playground is picked out, and we cut to a close shot of Riff's hand, snapping out a deliberate rhythm.
The biggest problem, as they saw it, that faced co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins was to have a realistic-looking New York, complete with cops, crime and street gangs -- in which the street gangs erupt into well-choreographed, ballet-like dances. In the excellent making-of documentary on the second disc, Wise explains that Robbins, who was in charge of the choreography (until he was fired from the film), decided to ease audiences into it. Beginning with that finger-snapping, the Jets move out across their "turf," walking rhythmically. Then one makes a dancer's move with his shoulders, another a small leap. And eventually, they're all dancing beautifully. Tamblyn even employs some of the gymnast's moves that he used in movies like "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "tom thumb." (However, he's dubbed in the "When You're a Jet" number by Tucker Smith, who plays the Jet "Ice.")
As they roam these very mean streets, they begin encountering members of the local rival gang, the Sharks, composed of Puerto Ricans. (No blacks appear.) The two gangs interact, mostly comically, and finally we follow the Sharks for a while, and their leader Bernardo (George Chakiris, who won the supporting actor Oscar for his work here).
The Jets are fed up with the Sharks, and want to have a rumble, but Riff insists on checking with his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer), once the leader of the Jets, but who's now got a straight job working for local druggist Doc (Ned Green). Tony isn't interested -- he's out of that life. (One of the problems with the film is that it's just about impossible to picture Tony as a street-fighting Jet.) And furthermore, he knows something very big is coming. But he does agree to go to the dance at the gym that night.
We also meet Bernardo's younger sister Maria (Natalie Wood), who's only recently come to New York from Puerto Rico, and is fretting under Bernardo's strict rules. Her best friend is the sexy, outgoing Anita (Rita Moreno, who also won the Supporting Oscar), Bernardo's sharp-tongued girlfriend. But 'Nardo has agreed to let her come to the dance at the gym, too.
And there across a crowded room, Tony's and Maria's eyes meet, and they fall instantly in love. (Well, you bought it for Romeo and Juliet.) This, of course, causes many problems, and ultimately leads to the tragic ending. (A bit less tragic than in Shakespeare, but a sad ending all the same.)
Dramatic musicals, rather than musical comedies, were almost unheard of in Hollywood in 1961, and the reason "West Side Story" was made was because it was a smash, award-winning hit on Broadway, and elsewhere in the world, too. (In the London company, Chakiris played Riff.) But the achievement of the movie was so overwhelming that it abruptly changed the direction of movie musicals. Instead of films that highlighted a major singer (Sinatra or Doris Day, for example), or a major dancer (Astaire and Kelly), musicals became largely based on big Broadway hits. Director Robert Wise followed "West Side Story" with what was for years the most popular movie ever made, "The Sound of Music." But gradually, the musicals became increasingly elephantine, and gradually the audiences stopped coming. Wise tried again with Julie Andrews in "Star," but it was far from a success.
But even with its scattered flaws, "West Side Story" is imperishable; it's so beautifully staged that it's hard to take your eyes away. The astonishing, wonderful dance of the gangs that opens the film is beyond words (if words could do it, you wouldn't need the dance). It's funny, beautiful and even elegant -- as Moreno points out in the documentary, "elegance" in a male dancer used to mean Fred Astaire, and only Fred Astaire, but Chakiris is beautifully elegant, too.
The number "America" on a rooftop with the Sharks and their girls isn't just a great song, but the greatest ensemble dance in movie history. Breathtakingly shot, brilliantly edited and enacted by a passle of great dancers, after the opening scene, it's the highlight of the film, which tends to drop off in energy at this point. But other numbers are remarkable, too, such as the dance at the gym, and "Cool," the cooling-off number the Jets perform in a parking garage. Another highlight is "Gee, Officer Krupke" as the Jets run through what were then the standard explanations for juvenile delinquency -- social, psychological, even intrinsic ("we're no earthly good"), only to finally fling it back into Krupke's face. "Krupke, we've got problems of our own." The great songs "Maria" and "Tonight" are not staged with accompanying dances, so that even though they are well-presented, they're not as exciting or memorable as "America" or "Cool."
While the film overall traces the romance of Tony and Maria, the text -- not even the subtext -- is bigotry and prejudice, and their sources in the hard streets of slum Manhattan. The Jets and the Sharks constantly seem on the verge of becoming pals, but the fact that the Jets are white (mostly Irish and Polish) and the Sharks are PR keeps them at odds. Tough cop Lt. Schrank (Simon Oakland) at first seems neutral, but eventually his powerful anti-Puerto Rican bias is exposed. The boys in the streets don't have a chance when authority endorses their prejudices. Only old Doc sees what the problem is, but he's just about on the point of giving up anyway.
It's no coincidence that "West Side Story" came along just as the social forces in the United States were bearing down on the idea of eliminating entrenched racial prejudice. Although the Civil Rights movement emphasized whites vs. blacks, and the movie deals with whites vs. Puerto Ricans, the country got the message. That, and the sheer brilliance of the film, made it a major hit, caused it to become the favorite movie of millions, and later landed it firmly on the American Film Institutes' list of the 100 greatest films of all time.
As mentioned earlier, there are some flaws in the film. It's pointed out in the documentary that there are weaknesses in the way Tony is presented, weaknesses that led many to criticize Richard Beymer's performance. Beymer is fine in the film, but Tony is written as such a starry-eyed dreamer, so ravished by his love for Maria, that he seems to belong in a different movie altogether. Tony should have been shown to be tougher, more surprised by his sudden love for Maria, and more of a Jet. But the play was written, and the movie followed suit. Beymer is also dubbed in his singing scenes; nothing wrong with that -- almost all musicals, even those in which the singers and actors are the same, are pre-recorded -- but there's a kind of disconnect between Beymer and the voice. Much the same is true of Natalie Wood, who tried to do her own singing (some examples are included in that documentary), but who was finally dubbed by Hollywood standby Marni Nixon. Even Tamblyn, who had STARRED in a musical of his own ("tom thumb") was looped for "When You're a Jet," though he seems to use his own voice in "Gee Office Krupke."
There's also a similar disconnect between the filmed-in-New-York scenes and those on the constructed sets, such as for the dance at the gym, and in the rumble scene at the end. The Manhattan-shot scenes look as real as gravel, handsomely photographed gravel of course, so there's a real daring in the ballet-like gang dances. But the gym looks like nothing more than a set -- ever seen a high school gym painted dark red? This didn't bother audiences in 1961, and probably bothers few, now, but it is noticeable.
Like Beymer, trapped by the script, to a degree Natalie Wood is trapped by being a major movie star, and, to a degree, by being noticeably too old for the role, and not being Puerto Rican. Still, her acting chops work well in the tragic scenes at the end; an actress who had all the elements needed to play Maria might not have been as good in those scenes.
Rita Moreno is sensational as Anita; tough, sexy, quick-witted and very emotional, she steals every scene she's in, whether she wants to or not. And George Chakiris is elegant and sexy himself, a brilliant dancer, good singer and more-than-adequate actor. The Jets are individually more distinctive than the Sharks, with Tucker Smith (Ice) and David Winters (A-Rab) being particularly good. Russ Tamblyn is completely believable as the tough but sentimental Riff.
But the movie didn't really do anything for the careers of the actors who starred in it. Natalie Wood was already a headliner, and remained so until her too-early death. Richard Beymer had been working in Hollywood in smaller roles for years, and even had a TV series back in 1949. George Chakiris had also done many movies as a dancer, but rarely received billing. Like Wood, Tamblyn had starred in a few films, and had smaller roles in many more, ever since he was a child (and billed "Rusty Tamblyn"). And Rita Moreno had also been in several films, and has continued on, working steadily, to the current time. Beymer, Chakiris and Tamblyn all continued on for several more years, but by 1966, their careers in major Hollywood careers had faded out; Tamblyn did some low-budget biker movies and horror films, and had a kind of personal renaissance when director Fred Olen Ray began using him regularly. (He tends to deny being a dancer, claiming only to be a gymnast, but does admit that he was trained by the great choreographers of his time.) Chakiris gradually faded out almost altogether, and Beymer also met the same fate, but was revived by "Twin Peaks," in which he played one of the leads, and very well, too. Tamblyn also appeared on the series.
This was really the only movie Jerome Robbins was credited with directing (or more properly, co-directing), but he shared the Best Director Oscar with Robert Wise. According to the excellent documentary in this DVD set, Robbins worked his actors/dancers very hard, but they mostly adored him for it -- but he took far too long for the producers, and finally was replaced altogether by Robert Wise, who had been handling the dramatic scenes all along. In the interviews, Wise sounds like a remarkably generous and good-hearted man; though Robbins' departure had not been stress-free, it was Wise who insisted United Artists fly Robbins to Hollywood for the Oscar ceremony.
Wise is interviewed in the excellent documentary that's a very worthy feature of this "Special Edition." There are interviews with many others, including producer Walter Mirisch, Hal Prince, who co-produced the Broadway production, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn, Tony Mordente (who played the Jet "Action Man") and many others. There's even a brief clip of Robbins, who died some time ago. The documentary ranges over the entire story of "West Side Story," from the creation of the play to the release of the film. There are occasional amusing anecdotes -- Wood and Beymer, for example, did not like each other -- but mostly the focus is on the talent, skill and hard work that resulted in this enduring classic. The DVD also includes storyboard-film comparisons, production design and other features.
The boxed, sleeved set also includes a booklet that reprints the shooting script of the movie, the promotional book sold in theater lobbies (with lots of photos, some, unfortunately, faded, and some unusual memos (including one to projectionists), and a couple of reviews. An outstanding movie has been given outstanding treatment in this set, which truly deserves the publicity term "Special Edition."