West Side Story ★★★★★

Ethan attempts to improve his awful writing skills by reviewing his 50 favorite movies #14

“All of you! You all killed him! And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill, too, because now I have hate!”

Let’s talk about subjectivity and surrealism.

Ever since the musical became a genre with the invention of synchronized sound, it has never been all that concerned with sticking to reality and an objective viewpoint. Which isn’t a bad thing, straying from the traditional uses of cinematography, production design, and wardrobe makes for a more interesting viewing experience and, more often than not, gives us some insight into either the themes or the characters at the time. From the cell block tango in Chicago, to the finale of both An American in Paris and La La Land, and the broadway melody in Singin’ in the Rain. Some of the most iconic musical moments in cinema have taken place outside the mirror of reality.

West Side Story doesn’t have this.

Well, let me elaborate.

Throughout the 152 minute runtime we get moments and scenes of heightened subjectivity, usually with Tony and Maria and most notably in their first meeting at the dance. Where the world and the screen both go dark except for our two star-crossed lovers. But not quite, on the periphery we can see the other participants staying in sync with our duo, suggesting that they are not the only ones participating in that sensual duet. This practice of lifting focus almost completely away from the background and onto our lovers occurs at least two other times. First, at the tonight number on the balcony and again at one hand, one heart. This makes sure we never completely forget the world of the film. Because, unlike many other musicals of the time, West Side Story had something to say, and breaking the reality of the film would have created a degree of separation between the audience and the film as it tackles, teenage delinquency, toxic masculinity, and immigration, all of which erriely ring true today. 

Now, on to character motivation.

There was a trend in films in Hollywood's golden age to pin the cause of teenage rebellion on something tangible, like rock music or comic books. But starting with Rebel Without A Cause, filmmakers started to realize the blame couldn’t so easily be pinned on something so tangible, from then on we started to see rebelling teenagers who did what they did because of the inadequacy of their parents or even because of boredom (but I’ll save that for the graduate). 

In West Side Story, the sharks and jets don’t rebel because they’ve read too many comic books or they listened to rock and roll. They don’t even rebel because to rebel, you need to have rules to break and parents to set down those rules to be able to rebel, and we never see a single one the entire film, they’re either busy working, drugged out, or simply out of the picture. And that provides a better motivation for our characters than any excuse concerned parents of the 50’s and 60’s could have come up with. 

I realize that this review is a lot longer than any of my previous reviews in this series (I finally have access to a computer). But I have a lot to say about this film, way more than could ever fit into a single short-form review. So whether or not you've seen it before I encourage you to check it out and look past the admittedly cheesy dialogue and the sometimes cringy dubbing to the heart and soul of the movie, not two star-crossed lovers desperate to be together. But of a group of kids trying to deal with their family drama the only way they know how. 

Current List Position: 6/14

Thanks for sticking it out guys if you have anything I could work on I’d love the feedback!

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