ARCHIVE Take 88: West Side Story

This week, #88 West Side Story, (1961) dir. by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. Available to rent and stream on Google Play, Amazon, and iTunes.

I doubt it will come as a revelation to anyone reading this blog that West Side Story is a 1950’s musical rendition of Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet set in New York City. The largest plot points of the stories are identical: feuding gangs, star crossed lovers, a series of tragic deaths. If you have talked to me over the last month, I’ve probably mentioned my recent obsession with The Affair (seriously though, it’s so good and it seems like nobody is watching it, don’t let this show become the next Firefly!) and I think that Noah Solloway sums up the heart of both West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet poignantly and succinctly in this short clip:

“Pure love cannot sustain in an imperfect world.” The short sentence is a perfect summary of the thesis for this movie, possibly more so than its predecessor. West Side Story veers away from Romeo and Juliet in the degree to which its characters are innocent, as well as how the imperfect world around them is constructed. It is the tangled web of their surroundings that makes the struggle of both gangs resonate with modern audiences.

When (if) I finish this project, I hope to someday go through the list and mark how many of these movies are about gangs and turf wars. This is evidently an American obsession, the idea of ownership and the right to stake a claim on a neighborhood and street corners. Part of the beauty of West Side Story is that there’s no clear indication who we should be rooting for, the Jets or the Sharks, and there’s no sneering villain looming in the background of the story. It’s easy to see the Sharks as victims of xenophobic harassment at the hands of the Jets, and there is definitely an argument to be made that the crimes of the Jets are more heinous in comparison to their counterparts. The Sharks themselves, the men especially, are undergoing a severe disillusionment of the American dream, demonstrated most directly by the song “America”: a festive look at the internal struggle an immigrant faces between a longing ache for home on one hand and the reasons you left in the first place on the other:

On the other side of the tracks, the Jets are first and second generation Americans who feel threatened by the idea of sharing territory with outsiders, just as many earlier Americans had felt threatened by their own Irish, Italian, Polish, immigrant grandparents. The Jets have enough distance from that overt racism that they forget, or ignore, that their own disenfranchisement is a result of the same fear of their Puerto Rican neighbors that they posses — the fear that they will lose power and control over their little slice of Manhattan. That feeling of powerlessness results in an inherited sense of unfairness and anti-authoritarian angst instilled in the Jets, which they poke fun at in “Gee, Officer Krupke”:

But by the end of the film, that humor is gone after the murders enacted by both gangs. Action identifies those deeply embedded roots of intolerance as the source of their unruliness:

“Doc: When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!

Action: We didn’t make it, Doc.”

The eruption of that misdirected distrust and anger into violence seems inevitable, as Rita explains to Maria before the rumble:

“Maria: Why must they always fight?
Anita: Well, you saw how they dance — like they gotta get rid of something quick. That’s how they fight.
Maria: To get rid of what?
Anita: Too much feeling.”

After watching their friends die in the fight and running from the police, that excess feeling they were aiming to rid themselves of is compounded by despair, terror, and confusion. Ice attempts to train the Jets how to suppress that emotion in “Cool” and the result is a jazzy number rife with sudden outbursts of emotion. Interestingly, the original Broadway production had this song before the rumble but the filmmakers decided to move it to after the deaths of Riff and Bernardo:

It is the rupturing of that overwhelming emotion, Tony’s murder of Bernardo, that taints the pure love between the two lovers that managed to bud in spite of trying circumstances. Maria loves Tony despite his actions, and the song “Somewhere” illustrates their longing to escape to a place where they can regain that sinless, innocent, existence — free from the influence of external corruption:

Of course, that utopia does not exist, and Tony cannot outrun his sins. He is shot by Chino and dies in Maria’s arms as they’re trying to make their getaway. In another notable adjustment to the source material, Maria does not commit suicide in West Side Story as her counterpart does in Romeo and Juliet. Instead, she exits the set with a shawl over her head, draped in mourning and destined to live on in the imperfect world.

Originally published at cinemyth.com.

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