West Side Story ★★★★★

Watched at Ravinia with the CSO playing the soundtrack live

One of the greatest aspects of this country also causes one of its greatest hypocrisies--that immigrants can land on these shores and achieve the American dream through hard work and perseverance, only to then turn around and try to deny that same dream to future immigrants. It’s the same story that plays out generation after generation, and why West Side Story sadly remains relevant decades after its debut. Though based on a Shakespeare play that takes place during the Italian Renaissance, West Side Story captures the fundamental identity and conflict at the heart of America. On the surface a love story across two separate worlds, this tale covers much more than the simple naive romance: it serves as the unfortunate catalyst for the inevitable tragedy that befalls a setting boiling with so much hate. Opening with the faint echoes of whistling that bounce off the towering walls of this cavernous, concrete jungle of New York City, this city serves as the playground for these young folk, a stage to profess their feelings, and an arena for an all-out brawl.

America, a nation of immigrants, has paradoxically been historically hostile to immigrants. It’s a cycle, with each immigrant group facing prejudice and hardship in this new country, only to turn around apply that same prejudice to the next wave of immigrants. The Jets, themselves poor and lacking opportunity, take up fights with The Sharks, poor Puerto Ricans who face even less opportunity and face even more systematic disadvantages, notably not so thinly veiled prejudice from the police; the Sharks are often framed in shadows to contrast with the well-lit Jets, and when the police break up the fights to keep the peace, the cops’ racist ire never fails to make a bigoted jab at the Sharks or to claim that malfeasance came from the Latino side. In another twist, despite all these differences and the animosity between the gangs, both sides can agree to never snitch to the cops. Perhaps they have too much pride to do so, or maybe it’s a futile attempt to exert their own autonomy in a country that constantly pushes them down. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that in this United States of America, these lower class societies are in a world of their own, made all the more clear to audiences in their effortless use of dance for the most ordinary of actions. Every time these gangs break out into dance that may come across as off-putting to modern audiences, it’s just another reminder that we don’t understand their world, and instead of judging, it’s time to pay attention to what they have to say.

Gang members snapping and high kicking in unison are the inevitable images that spring forth with West Side Story, which always provoke snickers from first-time viewers. Soon though, the dancing says more than words and songs can muster, and the dancing finds truth in the chaos. The dances are not solely physical confrontations, but as with the Mambo in the gym--with the orange and yellow of the Jets facing off against the purple and red of the Sharks--it’s a culture clash, with two different dance styles facing off. To the gang member, dancing is their way of fighting, and when laying low, they struggle to chill out their dancing and keep cool. At a deeper level, the dancing reveals true personalities: for the Puerto Ricans, as the debate rages on whether they are better off or not in Manhattan, the music and dance embody distinctly Latin qualities, an integral part of them no matter where they live; and as for the poor white adolescent boys who clamber for power of their own, they find it by abusing those below them, namely women and people of color. Every movement forward and each limb extended aggressively constitutes as an act of war, and in their world view, dance is a destructive force meant to vanquish one’s enemies. For two lovers, however, dance emerges as a constructive energy, using the dance between them to find their similarities and affirm their love.

Tony, ever the young man with his head in the clouds, chases the American dream and imagines he can work his way out of poverty. Maria, having faced the reality of her family’s disadvantages here, is much more realistic about her place in this country and initially rebuffs Tony’s idea that they can escape all their problems. Yet soon enough, the tragedies become too much, and the only path to happiness seems to be running away with the only thing that remains--their love. At the core of this romance is just a pair of impressionable kids who try to run away from home. Tony, as he comes to tragically realize, can’t escape his past life of crime, still clinging to his very core as a human being. For Maria, as the stained glass in her room showers her in colored light during some of this film’s darkest moments--conflicting ideas of martyrdom, the “blessed meek”, and the hypocrisy of all the violence the permeate these lives--faith remains integral to her and her family’s culture, a fact of her identity not so easily erased. For these two, their biggest mistake of all may be simply wanting something more out of destitute life. As their powerful voices soar above the moving strings in “Somewhere”, this dream of fantasy proves to only a reprieve as reality comes striking back.

West Side Story is a film of richly composed shots: the red walls embody the heated madness of this town, the symmetry of the row homes foretell the trappings of inescapable poverty, and when the rumble concludes, the camera captures the aftermath in a Dutch angle as the world has now become tilted. The American dream and American reality are constantly at odds with each other, just as violent as two gangs who are ruthless in their dogged determination to vanquish each other. Never a dull transition in this movie, the spinning of Maria in her dress transitions to the school dance and foreshadows the dream sequence of Tony and Maria first meeting eyes. Every shot is carefully arranged, adding information or imbuing a certain feeling, such as when the camera is low, looking up at an intimidating figure. In the end, as the camera zooms out and the characters make their stage exits, this American morality tale leaves the highly framed and staged locale and reenters the real world, yet not despite but because of all the orchestration done, the truth of the complexities around the American dream looms large. West Side Story is powerful, specified story from a particular point in American history, and though it may seem dwarfed by the mammoths of the ever-growing city around these characters, inevitably, by zooming into any part of that city, you'll always find this American parable playing out for millions over decades. Having these immigrants still dream of America time and time again, celebrating their cultures on the rooftops while still contributing all they have to their new home--that is what makes this country great.

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