West Side Story ★★★★★

May be the only film that challenges The Music Man for most musical musical. What I mean is that both films breathe musicality in a way that many musicals don't. Framing and camera movement have a cadence to them, rhythmic editing pulls the viewer along, and the color tones of the film and the words of the actors have a melodic musicality to them. Some films have people singing in them, West Side Story breathes music like a fish breathes underwater, completely immersed in it.

The camera acts as merely another hired dancer, and eventually as audience, we can feel right in the middle of the action in a way almost no other genre can achieve. We move and sway with the actors until we're almost hypnotized. I think this helps embroil the viewer in the story as well. I feel caught in both the literal heat of the city in the summer and the metaphorical heat of teenage emotions always at their boiling point.

I have a confession. I don't really like Romeo & Juliet. I certainly don't consider it the greatest romance of all time. And I think that dislike added to me putting this film off for far longer than I should have. What works for me here, that didn't work for me in the source material, is that the histrionic behavior of kids in love is contextually more tolerable and even emotionally poignant when delivered in song.

I don't believe in love at first sight, and I don't believe that the impulsive and irrational behavior of teenagers is deeply tragic. It's sad, but it's not really avoidable. Your brain literally doesn't fully develop the part that's good at limiting impulsivity until your early 20's. I'm not even sure Shakespeare didn't intend the play to be interpreted somewhat caustically, as a cautionary tale for burying yourself in love. But even if that were his intention, the story has taken on a life of its own in popular culture that is essentially inseparable from the text at this point.

But I do believe that music can shed reality and capture an atomistic emotion. I may not believe in love at first sight or the operatic love that romantic films and literature often portray. But I do believe that both of those reflect true moments (just moments) in the whole of a relationship. And I'm comfortable (in favor of!) capturing tiny ideas like that and expanding them in song in a way that I might not be otherwise.

That's what West Side Story does. It melts away reality in a way that few films do and crystallizes the feeling of intense, unending affection and the acute sense of tragedy that feeling fosters if it feels like the love might slip away even slightly. Musicals are the perfect vehicle for the angst ridden teenage romance, for love at first sight, for capturing this range of emotion, and no film manages them quite like West Side Story does.

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