The story of Juliet and her Romeo is tragic, so no one should go into “West Side Story” expecting a happy ending. The subject matter is heavy, preoccupying with the fallout of an unstable landscape that speaks with its fists – a body count rises in both the 1961 and 1922 stories, as well as on the Broadway stage. But what’s interesting to watch is how deftly Wise and Robbins take on the challenges of translating the best elements of the theatrical medium and its methods into the realm of film – and those elements aren’t always easy to transpose. . What was a sharp spotlight on stage is now a blurry accent on screen. Hierarchies and gang dynamics have space in the composition of the jump, with sharp snaps and sharp axis bends to unite and divide them.
The energy, fire and passion of these young people find expression in the unparalleled musical contributions of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, leading to numbers like “America” where the interplay between competitive men and playful women is never said, but well shown. in their choreography. Add the vibrant textures provided by costume designer Irene Scharaff, the incredible lens movement of cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp and a cast of multi-talented artists, and the result is cinematic magic.
Clearly, there’s a lot to update from the 1961 version. A blatant brownface stains the screen, and his conversations about race seem unfinished when the power imbalance between the predominantly white Jets and the brown-skinned Sharks and Spanish speakers is more or less put on an equal footing on both sides. element that Spielberg turned into more nuanced territory in his narrative (the 2022 version, written by playwright Tony Kushner, has the Sharks less of a street gang and more of a community trying to fend off xenophobic attacks).
There is an insistence in each version which carries with it an exhausting topicality even today, which makes the two films worth seeing: you have to find how to live together. It’s always good to stretch those muscles that mean, “You could never make this movie today!” considering how the conversations have changed, and the discourse on immigration, the assimilating police presence in minority communities and who has access to the American dream has certainly undergone some changes. What was that conversation like in 1961, and how acceptable was it to the public? Head over to HBO Max and find out.