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West Side Story

West Side Story

By Patrick Samuel • October 8th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
WEST SIDE STORY (MOVIE)
United Artists

Original release: October 18th, 1961
Running time: 152 minutes

Directors: Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Music: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim

Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris

West Side Story

Whether it’s the finger-snapping, toe-tapping musical numbers, the frantic choreography, the bursting colour of the outfits or the energetic spin it gives to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet there’s something for us all to love about West Side Story, and love it we do, decade after decade. It’s the classic story of a love affair between Tony (Richard Beymer) and Maria (Natalie Wood), with the backdrop of a gang war between the Jets and the Sharks. The lovers are caught on opposite sides with Maria being the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris), the leader of the Sharks, and Tony being the best friend of Riff (Russ Tamblyn), the leader of the Jets.

With the American teenagers pitted against the Puerto Rican immigrants, West Side Story is also about the gap between the haves and have-nots, about overcoming prejudices, social divides and deeply rooted racist sentiments which were rife in America at the time. As the lovers are drawn closer to each other, the violence around them threatens to tear them apart, as with the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet. The only thing they can do is try to unite both sides and get them to see reason; that hate only leads to more hate.

When Tony heads down to intervene during another senseless and frustrating conflict between the Jets and Sharks it inadvertently leads to more bloodshed on the streets of New York until finally it’s Maria’s heartbreaking speech that brings the war to an end. West Side Story is still a force to be reckoned with and its influence can still be felt today. Barry Keith Grant sheds some light on what New York was like during that time and the success the film had:

Made during a period of significant Puerto Rican and Latino immigration to New York, the film transposes the action of Shakespeare’s play from Verona, Italy, to contemporary New York, and changes the conflict from two warring families to tensions between white youths and recent Puerto Rican immigrants. West side Story was the second highest-grossing film of the year in the united States and swept the Academy Awards, winning ten Oscars, including Best Picture – more than any other musical. It garnered uniformly enthusiastic critical accolades. The soundtrack album was one of the best-selling LP’s of all time up to that point. [1]

West Side Story

He then goes on to tell us about that editing style of the film and what kind of impact it had on popular culture in the decades that followed.

Given Wise’s experience as an editor, it is no surprise that West Side Story depends substantially on the dance sequences. Indeed, the editing of these numbers, which relies heavily on montage, is noticeable different from earlier musicals, which tended to minimize editing at these points. [1]

This is certainly true. For example, there’s clearly a difference when we look at the musical numbers in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), Guys And Dolls (1955) and The King And I (1956) and compare them with Dance at the Gym, Gee, Officer Krupke, or Cool. The editing goes much faster, there are more close-ups on the action rather than long-shots and overall it really moves with the beat. Grant then goes on to say:

One might argue that the editing of the dances in West Side Story set the stage, so to speak, for new dance styles and their representation on film that would lead emerge with breakdancing and music videos two decades later. [1]

Can we really go that far as to alluding to West Side Story as an influence for the pop music videos of the 1980’s? Of course we can. Music videos from this time occasionally showcased an ensemble of rival groups and dance-offs, Michael Jackson’s Beat It and Bad are prime examples of this. David Winters, a dancer and choreographer who appeared both in the stage version and the film adaptation of West Side Story, playing A-rab, remembers meeting Michael Jackson when he worked on a television special with him and Diana Ross:

“Actually I saw a lot of “West Side Story” in his movements and certainly the video for the song “Beat It” was a complete steal of “West Side Story” even right down to the knife fight. I also recognise a lot of Bob Fosse and Fred Astaire in his dancing. Well I always say “If you’re gonna steal, steal from the best” and Michael certainly did.” [2]
SOURCES:

Michael’s videos would in turn influence a new generation, ensuring that West Side Story would live on through him.

From its music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim which fused together jazz, Latin and classical elements to create an unforgettable soundtrack, to its fashion and choreography West Side Story will quite simply never be forgotten.

Michael Jackson, Beat It (1983), directed by Bob Giraldi

Patrick Samuel

Patrick Samuel

The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.

You can find his music on Soundcloud .

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