Mystery Fest: West Side Story

1961 musical

Rating: 18/20

Plot: Like Romeo and Juliet, except with flamboyant street gangs.

Until I saw Can't Stop the Music with the Village People, this was maybe my favorite musical. It doesn't arouse me sexually like Mary Poppins, but there's a lot going for it. First, it's influential. I mean, neither The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton or Michael Jackson's "Beat It" would exist without this, right? There are also some sentimental reasons which I refuse to discuss. My 3 1/2 readers know me well, but you don't have to know everything, right? As a personal note, I will tell you that this is the movie that taught me to fight. It wasn't the only movie I saw as a kid that taught me how to survive the often-harsh streets of Brazil, Indiana, but this is probably the one that influenced my fighting style the most. I got through many a rumble by snapping my fingers and prancing around like an ice-skating fairy in a Disney cartoon. These Jets and Sharks make the gang members from Rumble in the Bronx seem legit, and any street thugs who look like they might have trouble in a scuffle with the Brady kids are hard to take seriously. And just imagine watching a bunch of street kids playing basketball like these guys do. Or even walking down the street. You'd start laughing, and they'd come snapping toward you all terrifyingly flamboyant or flamboyantly terrifying, and you'd be all like, "Come on! Have you guys actually seen yourselves?" But seriously--that finger-snapping opener? God, I love that. I love the movements and the lively colors and natural angles and contours of the streets and alleys in the city. It all looks so good. It's even a city with a gymnast bar for the boys to swing on like in Gymkata. I was surprised at the overhead shots of New York City and how much of this was filmed on actual streets because in my memory, it was mostly filmed on sound stages. The transition of the material from stage to screen works because of a dependable story, the great musical material, and a lot of cool stylistic touches. There's a nice little moment where the image of Maria in her dress morphs into the dance scene, and at that dance scene, there's another cool moment where everything blurs out except for Tony and Maria when they first notice each other. The "love at first sight" cliche--or maybe it's just lust--has never been more palpable on screen than it is right there. I also like the gleam of that knife during the big rumble and afterward, how all the angles are askew while poor Russ Tamblyn dies on the concrete with that Puerto Rican character whose name I can't remember because I'm a racist. Riff's one of many dopey characters (Eddie Haskell joining a gang?) but they're lovable even if they're not all that round. Tony's a hunk, but he's also got this great voice. It'll melt your heart. Natalie Wood might not be Puerto Rican (I'm really too lazy to look this one up), but she's quite the little hottie. Her singing is dubbed by the only person the studio could find who had a singing voice more annoying than Disney's Snow White. That's one of the few things I'd change about West Side Story. I'd dub Maria with Screamin' Jay Hawkins actually, just to mix things up a little. I'm pretty sure Maria's singing voice is what ultimately ends up killing Tony. I don't know who the guy is with the bow tie at the dance, but that part really should have gone to Jimmy Stewart. The gang members aren't memorable individually, but I like how they kind of meld together as one organism. Well, two organisms--a blob of Jets and a blob of Sharks. And I like the rhythm of their dialogue although it's the very opposite of authentic. And, of course, there are the songs. This is, after all, a musical. Bernstein's way of inserting all these recurring musical themes is neat. Sondheim wrote the lyrics, and he stated that he wanted this to be the first musical to use the words "fuck" and "shit," something that unfortunately didn't happen. But the songs make a great collection--the gang introduction song, Tony's "Who Knows?" song where he shows off that voice, the classic "Maria," the rambunctious "America" song, a whole tune devoted to Officer Krupke. There's a post-wedding song that isn't all that strong, but there's a great transition to a red sky and the pre-rumble pep rallies of the Jets and Sharks. "I Feel Pretty" is one I've always had a special attachment to because I considered it my theme song for about twelve years. You know, back when I was pretty. "Tonight" from the fire escape manages to be beautiful despite those Snow White vocals. And "Somewhere" is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful songs I've ever heard. I nearly cry every time I hear that, especially when it's Tom Waits' version. But Sondheim outdoes himself with the "Cool" song. Just check out these lyrics:

Boy, boy, crazy boy,
Get cool, boy!
Got a rocket in your pocket,
Keep coolly cool, boy!
Don't get hot,
Cause man, you got
Some high times ahead.
Take it slow, and Daddy-O,
You can live it up and die in bed!

Boy, boy, crazy boy!
Stay loose, boy!
Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
Turn off the juice, boy!
Go, man, go,
But not like a yo-yo schoolboy.
Just play it cool, boy,
Real cool!

First, I want the lines from "Breeze it" to "yo-yo schoolboy" put on my tombstone. Somebody write that down for me and make it happen. Second, I want you to imagine a Muppet singing this. Then, imagine a Muppet version of West Side Story and wet yourself. I'm pitching that idea to somebody because I want to see it happen. Tell me that won't work.

Ok, I'll give you a hint about the personal connection I feel to this movie. In my mind, I always attach "Somewhere" with the Iwo Jima flag raising, and I think I probably always will. It's partly because I have problems turning off the juice because I'm a yo-yo schoolboy, I guess.

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