West Side Story: Dance Fight!

So onward to West Side Story.  This 1961 film is a musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, placing the star-crossed lovers in New York in the 1950s.  It won ten Academy Awards, which no other movie musical has come close to.  Starring Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, West Side Story clocks in at #276 on the TSPDT list.

Full Disclosure: Well, I suppose this had to come out sooner or later.  I have two confessions to make.
1.) I am a musical theater nerd.  Few things make me happier than watching people sing and dance their way through life.
2.) I am a full on, unrepentant Russ Tamblyn fangirl.  Sorry.  I hope you can maintain some level of respect for me.

The Jets (Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) are two gangs that have been fighting for control of the streets of New York.  Frustrated that the Sharks keep infringing on their turf, the Jets decide to use that night's dance at the gym (neutral territory) as an opportunity to challenge the Sharks to a rumble, winner take all.  They beg Tony, a former member of the gang who now has a job on the straight and narrow, to join them.  He reluctantly agrees as a favor to his friend Riff, who is the leader of the Jets.

Meanwhile, the Sharks are getting ready for the dance, and Maria, the little sister of Bernardo (their leader), is excited because she's finally allowed to go with them.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, Maria and Tony see each other across the crowded dance floor, and it's love at first sight.  They kiss, which outrages Bernardo and increases the tensions between the two gangs.

They have a "war council", and decide to a one-on-one rumble between each gang's best fighter.  Thanks to Tony's intervention, they agree to not bring any other weapons with them.  Yes.  Because I would so trust the word of my rival gang.  Tony seems satisfied with this, but Maria begs that he go and stop the fight.  So Tony shows up, and Bernardo decides that he wants to fight him instead.  Quelle surprise, all of the gang members have knives, belts, and other weapons.  One thing leads to another, and Bernardo stabs Riff, killing him.  Enraged, Tony stabs Bernardo...thus killing his girlfriend's brother.  Uh-ohs.

Maria doesn't seem that put out, though, and she convinces her dead brother's girlfriend to help her meet up with the man who killed her brother.  Selfish, much?  Anita agrees to go give Tony, who is hiding at the candy store, a message.  Unfortunately, when she gets there, the Jets don't believe that she wants to help, and they try to rape her.  The only reason they don't succeed is because Doc, the owner of the store, shows up and stops them.  Furious, Anita tells them that Maria is dead.

Tony finds out and is stricken with grief, and basically goes to find Chino (the man who is meant to have killed Maria).  He finds Maria instead, but as he's running towards her, Chino shoots him dead.  The film ends with Maria telling both gangs what terrible people they are, and sobs over the dead body of Tony.

Random Musings:

  • Ok, I'm going to get all my ridicule out of the way right now.  There is literally no point in the film when I can take either of the two gangs seriously (possible exception: Anita's almost rape).  I can't help it: they are dancing through the streets trying to look tough.  If I met a group of these hoodlums while out and about, I wouldn't think, "Ooh, this is a gang, I should cross the street."  I would think they were on the way to class at Broadway Dance Center. 

I can appreciate the scenes later in the film that are highly stylized, choreographed "dance fights", because using dance as a visual metaphor for violence makes sense to me.  But when they're just strutting around, casually throwing out pirouettes...well, it's hard for me to accept that no one involved in the making of this film looked at the dailies and said tentatively, "So...these guys are supposed to be tough, right?"

  • That said...OMG I love boy dancers don't judge.

  • I also love that in this movie, gang graffiti involves the Sharks painting, "Sharks" on a wall, and the Jets adding "stinks" underneath it.  That's precious.

  • Here's another problem I have.  Who the hell decided to dub Russ Tamblyn?  Seriously?  I have an issue with a lot of the dubbing in musicals from this period.  First of all, as someone who works in casting, I personally think that you shouldn't cast an actor for a vocal part if they can't sing.  A lot of this has to do with the different standards in movie musicals now.  I think most audiences nowadays would rather watch a musical with a well known actor who has a good (or even decent) voice, than having them be dubbed by someone with a great voice.  Audiences in 2011 see dubbing as sort of cheating, which definitely wasn't the case when this film was made.  So I guess I can cut them a little slack.  But in Tamblyn's case, I really just think it's a shame - he's no worse of a singer than the guy they got to sing for him!  In fact, his voice has a rough quality that I think works well for the part -- and he can actually hit the end note of the Jet Song, unlike his dubber.  I found this great video on youtube that shows Natalie Wood and Russ Tamblyn's real voices in the scenes.

Let the record show, I understand why they hired a dubber for Natalie -- she's got a pleasant enough voice in I Feel Pretty, but it's just not strong enough for Maria's more difficult songs.  But then, I think casting her as Maria was a mistake anyway.

  • OMG Anita and Bernardo = Best Couple Ever!  They have perfect banter, but you can always tell how much they love each other.  I'm a huge fan of Anita in general - she's a little firecracker.

  • It's a shame that in this story, the Romeo and Juliet characters are doomed to be overshadowed by their supporting cast.  Seriously, Tony and Maria are so hopelessly bland.  They get the worst songs, the least fun and imaginative dances, and the cheesiest dialogue.  I can't think of another movie where the two leads were serviced so badly, while the supporting characters get such wonderful and memorable material.

  • I would seriously watch Russ Tamblyn do gymnastics for probably the next three hours if I could...sorry, thinking out loud.

Not Photoshopped...just Russ Tamblyn being awesome.

  • Tony, word of advice: before kissing a random girl that you just met at a dance, verify her identity.  It's possible that she's your arch-enemy's little sister.

  • Jets, please don't call each other Daddio.  You're already on thin ice with me, don't make it worse.

    • I LOVE the interiors of Bernardo and Maria's apartment building.  Where is this place and can I please live there?

    • There are some songs in this movie that I don't like, but I will say that I think America is one of the best musical numbers in any film, period.

    It's got brilliant choreography, incredibly clever lyrics, and a fantastic energy.  I like the concept of having the girls sing about the opportunities for foreigners in America, while the boys remind them of the realities.  I also really appreciate it when a song and dance number makes sense within the context of the, you can actually buy that these people are really spontaneously singing and dancing.  I could totally see the Sharks and Sharkettes heading up to the roof at night and having little impromptu dances like this for fun.

    • Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many of the Puerto Ricans in this film are actually Hispanic.  Must do some investigating...ok, investigation done.  Out of the four main Puerto Rican parts (Bernardo, Anita, Maria, and Chino), 50% are actual, honest-to-goodness Hispanics (Rita Moreno and Jose de Vega).  George Chakiris is actually Greek, while Natalie Wood is Russian.  I can't decide whether or not that's a good percentage.  Eh, it's 1961, I'll give it to them.  At least Rita Moreno is legit Puerto Rican.

    • Oh God Tony you sound like such a spaz saying Te adoro, don't speak Spanish ever again please and thank you.

    • Graziella and Velma make me want to reach through the TV and strangle them.  Jets, please find better groupies.

    • "When you was my age?!  When my old man was my age, my brother was my age.  You was never my age, none of ya, and the sooner you creeps get hip to that the sooner you'll dig us!" Ugh.  Putting the terrible late 50s slang aside, it's all woe is me, I'm a teenager, no one understands me!  Just shut up, Action.

    • I have a ridiculously soft spot in my heart for Baby John -- he's so sweet and such a good little dancer.

    • The scene where Tony and Maria are pretending the mannequins are their family members and arranging them for a wedding is actually pretty adorable...a brief moment of light in a tragic and ridiculously screwed up relationship.

    • Maria's an idiot.  Does she really believe that sending her boyfriend into an emotionally charged gang fight is going to accomplish anything good?  She tells him to stop the the hell is he supposed to do that?  She says he's got magic, but unless his magic happens to include "Expelliarmus!", I foresee difficulties.

    • No!  Riff and Nardo!  50% of the characters I care about are now dead!

    • And this is where the character of Maria falls apart for me.  Her brother is dead: someone's she's loved, who's taken care of her for years.  But all she's worried about is her relationship with a boy she's known for literally two days.  When adapting this from Romeo and Juliet, I think it makes sense to change Tybalt from a cousin to a brother...but it does have the side effect of making the Juliet character a cold-hearted bitch.

    • One thing I really appreciate is that all of the Jets are distinct characters, instead of just being background dancers.  You can really tell after Riff dies that they all have their own individual ways of dealing with grief.  And it paves the way for "Cool"...which is such a strange song, but that choreography is phenomenal.

    • Maria.  You just had sex with the man who killed your brother...earlier the same day.  Do you realize how f-ed up that is?  I really feel for Anita in all of be honest, if I was her, I probably wouldn't have tried to help Tony at all.  And Maria has the nerve to say, "You were in love, or so you should know".  Seriously?  You want to doubt that Anita loved Bernardo, the day after he was murdered, because she actually had a mature and healthy relationship instead of being some crazy selfish person who's blind to everything except this one random boy she's infatuated with?  What goes on in your head, Maria?

    • "You make this world lousy." "We didn't made it, Doc."  Action....ughhhhh!  That is the most bullshit response I've ever heard.  You don't want to take responsibility for your actions, so you blame them on the world at large?  It's not your fault that you just tried to rape an innocent girl, because boohoo, life's not perfect?!

    • Maybe I have an empty hole where my heart should be, but if I was dying from a gun shot wound, the last thing I'd want was a soprano singing showtunes in my ear.

    • As much as I don't like Maria, Natalie Wood does a great job with this last speech: "How do you fire this gun, Chino?  By pulling this little trigger?  How many bullets are left, Chino?  Enough for you?  Or you?  All of you!  You all killed him!  And my brother!  And Riff!  Not with bullets and knives!  With hate!  Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!  How many can I kill, Chino?  How many, and still have one bullet left for me?"

    So that's West Side Story.  Despite the fact that it's a really easy film to mock, it's actually a pretty good musical.  Most of the problems I have with it are the same problems I have with Romeo and Juliet (ie. selfish impulsive teenagers piss me off), so I can't really fault the film for those.  There are a number of great, really memorable songs in here, and I can't think of a movie musical that has more consistently amazing choreography.  Props to Jerome Robbins on that.  The dialogue is dated, but the acting's pretty strong.  I think it's a genius adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, to take a story that involves two feuding families and turn it into a contemporary piece that reflects the racial tensions of New York City (and America) in the 1950s.  Maria's characterization is problematic; it's hard to believe that this girl could be so unfeeling about her brother's death.  But the film's many stellar supporting characters more than make up for this.  It's easy to see why this movie made such an impact when it came out, and why it's still such a popular film.

    That's it for me!  Thanks for reading, and come back tomorrow for The 400 Blows!

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    belledame said...

    just got back from seeing it in a theater. it was fantastic. nearly packed audience. lots of applause. they played an amc interview with the producer, chakiris and the singing double, marni nixon. it was fascinating. they revealed that the one thing that really bothered them about wood was that she wasn't latin, but in the end they decided to go with her. also, wood really wanted them to use her singing. she did all the recording but would not work with nixon at all. nixon worked from her recordings and images to match maria's accent and the lip movement. wood did not have a strong enough voice or musical theater technique. when they finally told her she'd mostly be dubbed, wood was furious. some of her voice is in the movie though. and nixon mentions that she is dubbed in for some of the speaking in the final scene as well. this surprised chakiris who commended nixon for doing a seamless voice match.

    Audrey on a Mission said...

    Oh yeah I heard they were playing this in theaters again. That's really cool! Yeah, I've heard clips of Natalie singing songs from this movie, and she really just doesn't have a strong enough voice. Maria's a hard part vocally to begin with, and she doesn't have the range or power to her voice. Nixon, on the other hand, has proven herself to be an excellent vocal double. I am surprised to hear she did some of the speaking as well, I'd never heard that before. That's a bit odd.

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