Sunday, March 23, 2008

MMWAM: West Side Story

The following review, while appearing on The Film Experience blog, is decidedly not the opinion of Nathaniel Rogers or The Film Experience blog, but belongs solely to his crusty guest contributor, JA of My New Plaid Pants. Its appearance here does not indicate any approval, agreement, vetting, endorsement, or anything of the sort, or really probably even coming close, by Mr. Rogers and his fine establishment.

With that firm caveat outta the way, let's get down to it. Y'all voted to make me watch a musical. And I did.

West Side Story... 1961, directed by Robert Wise, who directed my much beloved The Haunting only two years later (and my much-fallen-asleep-during The Sound of Music two years after that). Music by Bernstein, lyrics by Sondheim. Screenplay by the great Ernest Lehman from the play by Arthur Laurents with an uncredited assist by ol' Bill Shakespeare. Titles and "visual effects" by maestro Saul Bass (recently showered with affection by my co-guest-blogger Thombeau here)... I think by "visual effects" they mean that moment when I became convinced I was having an acid-flashback and Natalie Wood morphed into a pirouetting kaleidoscope, right?

Anyway, that's a massive assemblage of talent right there. And it certainly shows - this beast of four-hundred backs managed through sheer force of talent and will (and a good dollop of cheeseball charm, something I'm never too immune to, try as I may) to beat my initial doubts and fears - which were many - mostly into submission.

I do believe the correct terminology is "Stockholm Syndrome."

As is fairly typical in these sorts of hostage situations, things didn't start out too pretty. The film begins with one of those "Let's set the tone with ten minutes of a blank screen and the score's many moods blaring" openings (sidenote: there's got to be a more efficient name for these things, right? Help?) that inevitably force my finger to the remote control (if Lawrence of Arabia gets the fast-forward here, then so does West Side Story). And then... comes the dancing. The... fight dancing. Sigh. To be honest - and that's what I'm doing here; turn away, dance fans! - this was rough. West Side Story and I did not get off on the right foot. Or the right left foot. Or the right tippy toe spin into a finger-snap of silly menace, for that matter.

Still, to skip ahead a bit, the film has its charms - yes, Rita Moreno is tops amongst these - and by the end I found myself fighting off a hint of tear. So what did it? What swallowed my soul and made me give in, at least a little? Here's my highlights.

Rita Moreno - To call her a firecracker would be keeping approximately within the realm of racial sensitivity the film adheres to, so I shall - what a firecracker!

It was during the "America" number that I first found myself first smiling, and she appears through the film often enough, and with enough constant moxie, if you will, to keep that goodwill freely flowing. Indeed, whenever she was onscreen - and, forgive me Nathaniel, especially when she was onscreen opposite Natalie Wood - she was all I saw, and I loved her for it. I mean, what else can you look at in this moment:

I think even the cinematographer had a Moreno bias. She's all I be lookin' at.

The costumes - Blame (or thank) this influence on my boyfriend - these are the sorts of things I never noticed before him - but a good chunk of what kept my eyes fixed to the screen was the beautiful shirts and ties and suits worn by this supposed bunch of ruffians.

Such fine tailoring for hoodlums!

The music - This is where I'm most grateful to y'all for finally making me plunk down to watch this one - I was familiar with the majority of the songs from this film, but before watching it I couldn't have told you what they were from. "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty"... sure, I'd heard them before, but when they actually came falling out of character's mouths I had one of them lightbulb moments, and now I can claim knowledge I didn't have before. So thanks for that!

The "One Hand, One Heart" number -
This is the song that was sung during Tony and Maria's fake-wedding, right? I include this as a highlight because I was a bit exhausted by this time in the movie, and it gave me a good ten minutes of sleep.

Thanks, boring song!

(Oh, snark. You couldn't stay away too long, could you?)

The final half-an-hour or so of Nathalie Wood's performance - Around the time that Maria stood waiting on a rooftop for Tony to come to her after stopping the rumble - a feat he failed so spectacularly at, of course - and Wood does her little "I am such a happy girl in love!" dance whilst waiting, well right around then I found all the dislike I was having for Wood in the film up to this point start to slip away.

I was told by my boyfriend that I could get away with calling Wood "mis-cast" and not get hate-mail sent to me, but after this point in the film I really did find myself starting to like what she was doing. In all honesty, I found the Tony/Maria scenes to be cripplingly boring, and I never warmed to Richard Beymer as Tony. But Wood sold me on the last arc of their doomed love story much better than I anticipated, and even though the finale was positively drowning in cheese, I was still somewhat moved by her performance.

The darkness - Ah darkness, my sweet friend. Thankfully, to even out some of the more saccharine flavor of the film, West Side Story did have a few unexpected detours into darksville that obliged from me some respect. Mostly I speak of the attempted rape of Anita by the Jets, which was not somewhere I thought the film was going to go, and felt truer than most everything that'd come before. It might have been the excessive goodwill Moreno's performance had built up in me, but this was the sort of actual, harsh reality these kids lived within that I felt the film could've used more of. One of my main issues with the dance-fighting sequences was the over-stylization stole any actual fear of what was happening from my understanding of the moment. Instead of finding the battle to the death between Riff, Bernardo and Tony frightening, the choreography and exaggerated facial tics of the actors -

- kept me at a distance. But the attempted rape on Anita felt much harsher. It might've been the enclosed space which kept the camera somewhat tighter to the horrible action, or like I said it might've been how much I was digging Moreno, but this scene balanced out a lot of my distaste for the the arch superficiality of the story. Specifically this bit of unexpected choreography within the scene -

- hit me in the gut, and up until this point I didn't think the film would go somewhere quite this dark. These are the supposed "good guys" about to gang-rape the girl whose boyfriend one of them just murdered! And the film goes there; it doesn't just hint at what they might do.

Really, right after the deaths of Riff and Bernardo, the film stepped up a lot in this respect and went several places I didn't think it had the, ahem, cajones for. Like here:


Okay, so I think I hit enough of what I didn't like about the film there within discussing what I did like to leave it be, and not end this review on a downbeat list of negatives. Nobody wants that! There was much to admire. I'm glad I saw it, and thanks be to all of y'all who voted to force my hand on this one; I really might never have done it without you. Next up on Tuesday will be my review for Singin' In The Rain (which, if you'll allow me a moment of self-crucifixion over, Netflix did screw me over with and I actually went out and bought a copy of it so I could see and review it before Nathaniel returns from afar... not that I'm saying nothing here, but there is a PayPal link on my blog if anyone maybe wants to donate five cents here or there towards the "JA buying musicals, of all JA-forsaken things" Fund...).

And tell me in the comments what you love most about West Side Story. Am I nuts for thinking Tony was a snooze-fest? For ever finding anything redeeming within Natalie Wood's performance, or for not finding enough? Is Rita Moreno really universally adored by everyone on Earth? And were A-rab and Baby John supposed to be boyfriends or what?



the Constantly Dramatic One said...

Rita is loved by all. Her body was smokin hot too.

Westside Story is not that good to tell you the truth. Though the opening,fingers clicking dance sequence did caught my attention but there are some very boring moments in this movie.

The special effect is too stupid but then I guess, it was the shit during that year. The movie only get better during the 2nd half. The attempted rape scared the Bejesus out of me, and by the end I was crying.

He died. It was sad.

And now that you mentioned it, damn they were a bunch of well dressed hoodlums.

Now I'm looking forward for the Singin in the Rain review. Its my favourite musical ever.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, West Side Story is not my favorite, mostly because of Richard Beymer. He's such a...I don't even know. Wet rag? Limp noodle? He's lame. But I do think most of the score is really great (except "One Hand, One Heart",, and "America" and "Cool" are some of my favorite movie musical numbers ever.

gabrieloak said...

JA--I enjoyed your commentary on WSS. It's far from my favorite musical film, though I love the score. It doesn't even work that well on stage, though the choreography is wonderful to watch in person.

One Hand, One Heart is one of the best songs in the West Side Story score, IMO. Beautiful in its simplicity. And not very long so I don't know how anyone could be bored by it.

JA--I hope you bought the 2-CD edition of Singin' in the Rain, which is well worth the price.

Robert said...

Odd for a musical but I agree that Tony (and Maria for that matter) are the most boring elements of the whole story (what can I say, I'm a romantic at heart).

The fact that the film gets so dark as it goes on (from its almost ballet like opening to a gang-rape attenpt) is the most shocking and best thing about the movie.

Anonymous said...

Ha. Much enjoyed reading your thoughts, and full agreement regarding Tony being a slice of bland ham.

Utter disagreement regarding One Hand, One Heart though; a song I love so much I even enjoyed it when Johnny Mathis had a stab at it with Streisand.

Great film.


Jason Adams said...

To be fair to "One Hand, One Heart" song, I really started nodding off before it started. I had to look up the name of the song because I really wasn't alert enough to remember that, much less any of the lyrics or music to it. So it's not entirely the song's fault - it was more that entire sequence with Tony and Maria and blah blah blah their perfect love that did it.

Deborah said...

It's called an "Overture."

Otherwise known as "time to get popcorn." You totally don't need them at home.

Jason Adams said...

Thank you, Deborah. That is something I really should've known.

Catherine said...

I grew up listening to the soundtrack, which my parents had on LP. I think that's why, when I saw the film for the first time maybe 5 years ago, I fell in love. Although Tony is dreadfully dull.

RJ said...

Singing in the Rain is 200 times better.

I like West Side Story . . . but I do think that Natalie Wood is miscast. A lot of her scenes are kind of blah.



StinkyLulu said...

Yes, A-Rab and BabyJohn are so completely boyfriends.

Anonymous said...

West Side Story is one of my fav musicals ever.

eh..Natalie Wood is alright in this. I agree that she gets better near the end. I don't care for Richard Beymer at all. I think he was the worst part of the movie.

Rita Moreno is just plain amazing.

Hayden said...

I think it's sooooo overrated.

Sam said...

I saw WWS when I was 8 and was totally enthralled. I remember being prone on the shag carpet watching the black and white Magnavox and thinking this was the most magical thing I had ever seen. I immediately asked for the soundtrack for my birthday since, after all, don't most little boys in the deep south ask for show tunes for their 9th birthday? I never got it. Instead I got a shotgun. For real. A shotgun. It was my parents last ditch desperate effort to derail this "phase." It may also have had something to do with all the time I spent dancing up and down the hall doing America just like Rita Moreno.

Anonymous said...

Rita kept me loving this movie. Richard Beymer was too plain boring, like the very chaste product of milk and vanilla in a room with boring wallpaper.

lylee said...

This is one of my top ten movies of all time (and flits in & out of my top five). the stylization doesn't bother me a whit, maybe because I like ballet and have a weakness for dance movies, even cheesy ones. I cry like a baby at the end, every time.

"One Hand, One Heart" is indeed one of the most beautiful songs in the entire musical.

also agreed, however, that Richard Beymer is pretty bland, and Natalie Wood gets better as the movie goes on.

What about George Chakiris? As a youngun I found him quite hot (still do, actually). Rita Morena's sexy awesomeness, of course, goes without saying.

Pax Romano said...

Love this movie, Officer Krupke, America and The Dance at the Gym (hello Gomez Adams!) are my fave scenes.

Did you notice the baby dyke? What did they call her, "Anybody"?

Jason Adams said...

I totally meant to call out the baby dyke, pax, and forgot. She was great. I think you're right, they called her Anybody. She was pretty great.

George Chakiris was good, lylee; more interesting than Tony, to be sure. I was a little distracted - as I was with all the white actors with brown-face - by his make-up though.

Anonymous said...

in the first still doesn't the guy in the foreground look like Thomas Jane?

Unless it's got Fred Astair in it I am not going to comment on a musical.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite movies musicals of all time ... a little dated at this point.
Moreno was great and deserved her Oscar... George Chakiris damces well but getting an Oscar.. No!!
Natalie Wood, IMO, did a brave job at the beginning... she was not a dancer or singer... in the end is where she shines a s an actress... Wood , I think, would have been much better with a costar she had chemistry with.

She hated Beymer and It comes through in their scenes together... cold.

Catherine said...

I just love the "I Feel Pretty" scene; it looks like they're all having a great time. My sister and I used to listen to the albu and make up dances to this song when we were little, before either of us had even seen the film.

Anyway, I can't wait for your review of Singin' In The Rain. I was cleaning my room today, so I popped in the dvd to make the chore go by quicker. Instead, it took me about an hour longer than it should have, because I kept pausing to watch the screen. Debbie Reynolds is adorable in that film and Donald O'Connor..sigh.

Glenn Dunks said...

Beymer is the worst part of WSS, sure and even though I don't think Natalie Wood experiences her finest hour here, the movie as a whole is just enthralling and amazing. love it.

Anonymous said...

Natalie Wood had just given an emotionally draining performance (and the performance of her career!) before this film... in fact she was late to filming because she was still doing Splendor In The Grass when filming for WSS began. So that's my excuse for her performance here :p

In all honesty, I actually think she was decent throughout, but stellar in the last half hour too. She won the Oscar (... nomination) for the right film anyhow.

Anonymous said...

West Side Story is my alltime favorite movie, hands down, and the only movie that I've even driven to a neighboring state to see a screening of. It's agreed that Richard Beymer is a weak, lacklustre Tony, but he's more than offset by the other actors and actresses in this movie. I also think it's possible that Beymer might've been a stronger, more credible Tony if it hadn't been for his poor relations with Natalie Wood in real life.

Anonymous said...

Ah, my favorite musical!

Both the stage and movie versions have their advantages and disadvantages. (I think the placement of "Cool" comes off better in the movie, for example.) But here's a much as I love the movie, maybe the dancing gang members "work" a little better on the stage, where you immediately accept dance as "language", than against the photo-realistic New York streets? Maybe you might want to catch a really good stage production and see if the menace comes off a little better there. Even I, who love the movie, can't help but crack up at the bit near the beginning where the Jets are dancing down the street and the passers-by just walk by them as if it's normal.

And ITA on Richard Beymer. Natalie Wood is excellent if a little tame as Maria (I just saw a stage production where the Maria was a little saucier), but Beymer gave off no sense that he was once a tough gang member. The very best Tony I ever saw was in a very small production, and I believed in him both as ex-gang member AND as lover from the word go.

You might find this essay from a WSS expert interesting: . It details how many characters were softened somewhat for the film version and offers ideas on how else they might be played onstage--and it brings up most of the same complaints with Beymer.