West Side Story, based on plays by William Shakespeare and Jerome Robbins
Although not as famous as the original Romeo and Juliet, on which this modern version is based, West Side Story is one of the classics that has seen its lyrics and songs transmigrate into other films.
Both Analyze This and Anger Management have two of the titans of the cinema sing one of the popular tunes of the quintessential musical: “I feel pretty, oh so pretty…I feel stunning and…gay” – interesting to notice that at the time of this production there was yet another significance to this word.
The plot is familiar from Romeo and Juliet, although there are elements from the present day world that sound so relevant- in a world where so many nationalistic parties are on the rise, attacks against foreigners and animosity or hatred towards other groups are so rampant, the background of West Side Story could be set in the present.
Like the Montagues and the Capulets in Verona in the middle ages, the White Jets and the Sharks clash with each other and dispute each other’s right to “trespass” and walk in territory controlled by one or the other of the gangs.
Tony belongs to the White Jets, led by his friend Riff, while the other protagonist, Maria- portrayed by the stunning Natalie Wood- is the sister of the other gang head, Bernardo and this makes the love affair between the two leading characters undesirable, at least in the eyes of their respective communities.
Part of the appeal of this classic feature resides in the lesson, the message that it sends- adapted as it might be from the Shakespearian archetypal tragedy- that tribal violence and hatred has awful results and peace is the way to settle disputes.
There are some minuses that one could find in the treatment of the plot, like the too simple dialogue – although this is relative, one could dispute this and say that this exactly how ordinary people talk or used to in the poor neighborhoods where the personages live and work.
Then there is the matter of the organized fight and the change brought about by Maria, who should have kept quiet and then none of this would have happened- another perspective is possible here: the rumba had to be danced, people had to be killed, for we have the modern day Romeo and Juliet and this is how it ends in the original, although there is a significant change in the finale in the West Side Story version.
When Tony meets Maria he is flabbergasted- “Maria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria…the most beautiful sound I ever heard” the whole world is changed, the hero wants to be friends with everybody, including the enemies that prepare a collision with his own friends.
As the two opposing gangs meet at Doc to establish the playground – or is it the battle ground?- the weapons, the protagonist is set to make it as tame as possible and avoid any injuries, in an effort at damage control he insists on a fist fight, without knives, bricks and other dangerous objects.
He uses creativity and cunning, calling the warring factions chickens, since they are not ready to get to the battle with skin on skin only, provoking and challenging the macho men into accepting his version, when the police officer in charge with the area arrives.
The latter uses the same technique, insulting the Puerto Ricans- the Sharks gang is entirely organized around the community originating from that island- in order to provoke them into giving him information, then pretends to the white Jets that he is one their side and asks where the clash will be.
The young men are determined to fight for their misguided beliefs though and the police officer learns nothing about the battle he wanted to prevent, and they meet at the established point, where the clash follows the established procedure, Alhamdulillah.
However, this is not for long, and the moment when the profundity of another Shakespearean line „Hell is paved with good intentions” arrives, as the primed Tony arrives to eliminate all conflict, not just as fisted one.
His love, Maria, made him promise that he would go to the place of the rumble and stop it, only as he tries to prevent the fighters from engaging in any kind of confrontation, things get worse, and instead of resulting in just a few bruises and one or two black eyes, two dead are left on the field.
When talking about love- the ultimate, most complex human feeling of all and the most difficult to describe, understand and surmise- one can think of Thomas Mann and one of his magnificent short story in which the protagonist is upset by the frequency with which humans make wrong references to this sublime, spectacular emotion…
He was able to hear people near him complain that they “have no words to express how deep, big, all conquering their love is”, when the hero of the narrative is sure that words like love and friendship have a real correspondent only in…fiction, for in real life, we are not ready to go as far as it is requested by real feelings like love and friendship.
Well, in West Side Story, there is “real” love, for Maria proves that she would go as far as it takes for the man she loves, she will forgive him for the pain inflicted, for any – accidental or not- murder he may commit and she would travel to the end of the earth for him…if given the chance that is.
West Side Story is the winner of ten Academy Awards, including Best Motion Picture, the Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, the BAFTA for Best Film from any Source and other prestigious prizes, but unless you love musicals, the two hours and thirty-three minutes of the feature might seem a bit long for you.