West Side Story ★★★★

Stunning choreography, arresting production design, and striking cinematography distinguish this classic as one of the greatest and most compelling examples of the musical genre. 

The storyline depicting a violent clash between rival gangs separated along racial and ethnic lines has never been so relevant as it is today. It was quite stunning to see this film the day after watching “Hamilton,” whose creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, seems very much a product of the film’s milieu. In fact there is a soda shop that is the setting of several scenes, one a disturbing assault against the girlfriend of the leader of the Puerto Rican gang, the “Sharks,” and another, when the Sharks are reminded that the socio-economic and justice system is titled against their favor, which has a painting of the Founding Fathers in the background and another image of the US flag blowing in the wind. The juxtaposition of the injustice happening in the two scenes against the still-unrealized ideals of this nation’s founding evoked by the wall art created an almost eerie feeling of premonition given the current events facing our country.

Further, Maria’s statement towards the end about hatred also felt sadly relevant in that we have seemed to advanced the stare of affairs between class and race very little in the 60 years since this film’s release. 

It’s difficult to ignore the influence this film must’ve had on many movies, particularly “La La Land,” “The Warriors,” or Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” (though that video’s director denies the connection). 

I will say that the songs themselves except the ones I describe below didn’t fully resonate with me as they seemed to be somewhat old fashioned, inaccessible to a modern ear, and stilted in their arrangement. Despite that, I would consider this film absolutely essentially viewing, both for its tragic message and for its absolutely revolutionary production design, camera work, use of colors, and phenomenal dancing.

I love the opening sequence with the sweeping overhead camera work, showing the denizens of the city like ants, culminating with the rousing musical/dance number. The other numbers I enjoyed was the “Officer Krupke” song that was a bit goofy but funny and true. My favorite song was “Be Cool,” following the violent rumble. I loved how the gangmembers used dance and song to overcome their grief and sadness, a practice we should probably do more of in our society to process trauma. Also, the song just prior to the big rumble was well constructed, with all of the major characters getting to sing a portion of the song, with their own personal baggage and perspective. 

A final word - the idea that Spielberg is remaking this film seems entirely unwarranted and superfluous, like someone remaking “Apocalypse Now” or “The Godfather.”  Some classics should just be left alone.  I suppose I will begrudgingly watch the Spielberg version for comparison purposes but it seems like a cheap move to me. That said, if a remake were inevitable, I would prefer in seeing modernized hip-hop version featuring contemporary gangs with a person of color director/choreographer/songwriter.

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