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“West Side Story” Critique

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Synopsis: Maria is a newly-arrived Puerto Rican girl whose brother heads a gang called The Sharks against the Caucasian gang called The Jets. The rivalry between the gangs is in place from the beginning, but it reaches a fever pitch when Maria falls for Tony, the founder of the Jets, at a local dance. West Side Story is the classic tragedy of Romeo & Juliet set in a modern setting. The setting is the Upper West Side of New York City in the late 1950s with conflict between rival street gangs rather than families.

In the opening of the film, during which nearly 15 minutes pass before a real line of dialogue is spoken, contains some impressive overhead shots of NYC. It is a breathtaking aerial shot of Manhattan from a bird’s eye view capturing the city with many of its recognizable landmarks as it moves steadily to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and then speedily zooms down and plunges into a concrete playground where an elaborate set of dances takes place as The Jets and The Sharks bicker over their territory readying themselves for a gang brawl.

The movie is based on the successful Broadway hit – a staged musical play of lovers that crossed racial/ethnic barriers, juvenile delinquency and inner-city problems of the mid-twentieth century – in exhilarating musical and dance form.

West Side Story was the first musical I have watched that addresses the realities of life. Usually musicals are cheerful & far from reality & its harshness. But this movie explores both the senselessness of gang strife and the prejudice faced by immigrants in depth. Still, the approach to violence is unique and very appropriate for a musical. West Side Story is bloodless in all scenes including the stabbing and gunshot scenes. All the fights are divorced from reality since the characters dance around each other during stalking and attacking. The choreography and music put a real sense of menace into these scenes. The dances communicate the passionate intensity, frustration and tough violence of the streets. Therefore, we end up feeling the violence more than seeing it.

Consciousness of racism was very much on the rise in the U.S. of the late fifties. Bernstein portrays this in a very clear way. The movie emphasizes the racism and discrimination that Puerto Ricans were subjected to in America in the 50s. For example the song “America”, my favorite in the whole movie, expresses the ambiguous feelings of the immigrants about their homeland while condemning American white racism. There is so much depth included in this number, both stylistically (the dance steps & the body language) and in substance (the lyrics)

The movie has precise details like the Jets’ mispronunciation of “Puerto Rico” as “Porto Rico” in addition to the unique slang language the gangs use (PR; tea-marijuana; JD- juvenile delinquents…) as well as the use of gestures, camera angles, lighting, sounds, songs, steps, and settings to drive the plot forward through its emotional highs and lows.

The music is so powerful & essential in the movie. It is used to convey different emotions and put the audience into the appropriate mood. Abrupt music contrasts are used to show contrast (Great intermix of sweetness -Tony & Maria-, sexiness -Anita- and tragedy -the gangs- in Tonight). West Side Story features popular songs, many of which have become “standards,” still widely performed and loved today (I Feel Pretty).

Parents are kept offstage; there’s only one good but powerless adult–Doc–anywhere to be seen. The cops are portrayed as corrupt racist thugs (Ltn Schrank insults the PRs). In WSS, hope for the future can reside only in the next generation. The movie places responsibility for ending the conflict squarely in the laps of its young viewers.

I would say that most of the actors were selected based more on dancing ability than acting skills because West Side Story’s musical numbers have deep strength but the traditionally dramatic scenes are limited in effectiveness. Therefore West Side Story is at its best when the characters are singing and dancing. And their best is really good!

Although Nathalie Wood gives a strong enough performance, I believe that she was miscast: Her Puerto Rican accent is very shaky and she doesn’t look Puerto Rican at all. However, she puts her abilities as a dramatic actress to good use especially in the last scene — “You killed them…Not with bullets or guns, with hate!”

My favorite character in the movie is Anita. The actress casting her can sing wonderfully, dance exceptionally, and exudes a passion that brings special life to her scenes.

Another thing I really admire in this movie is the really witty and expressive dialogue. For example, when Maria asks Anita: “What happens when you look at Bernard?” Anita replies: “It’s when I don’t look that it happens.” And in the lyrics of America like when Anita says: “Life is alright in America” and Bernardo answers back with: “If you’re all White in America”

The message: Doc, the little Jewish candy store owner, expresses the movie’s message lucidly: “You kids make this world lousy! When will you stop?”

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