Saturday, October 20, 2012

West Side Boring: "West Side Story" (1961)

This overrated classic musical lifts Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" storyline, and muddles it with a cold romance and gangs that were dated even at the film's world premiere.

Riff (Russ Tamblyn) is the leader of the Jets, who are constantly having run-ins with Bernardo's (George Chakiris) Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. Planes and fish don't mix, and things come to a head when the gangs are at a dance when Bernardo's sister Maria (Natalie Wood) meets the Jets' cofounder and Riff's best friend, Tony (Richard Beymer).

Tony is trying to clean up his act, backing away from all the street dancing, but he is immediately smitten with Maria. A Jet and a Shark cannot be lovers, and since no one in the film has read "Romeo and Juliet," no one knows what will happen. Eventually, the film does ape Shakespeare, partially.

The positives are what made the film a classic. The songs are excellent, using Stephen Sondheim's lyrics to carry the emotions of the characters. The dancing and ballet choreography are superb. It may seem silly to have street gangs dance-fighting, but the pure athleticism on the part of the dancers is fantastic. Rarely have dance numbers been so physical, and so grand.

On the downside, the main romance takes place waaay too quickly. This is quicker than a whirlwind romance, this is a tornado wrapped in a cyclone being blown by a wind machine. The mere speed of the relationship (a day) takes any sympathy for Tony and Maria away from the viewer. Leonard Bernstein's music is good in the songs, but not as incidental background noise. He thinks he is scoring a bombastic Broadway song even in quiet moments. The pacing is a little slow, as this marked the beginning of the two and a half hour widescreen musical genre that spawned such bloated cinematic drivel as "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Doctor Doolittle."

"West Side Story" is not a perfect classic, and not a dud. It is squarely in the middle of the spectrum. If anything troubles the viewer, it is wondering how this film beat out "Judgement at Nuremburg" for the Best Picture Oscar. (* * *) out of five stars.