GENRE JAM: West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story (1961)

There's gonna be a rumble....

For this week's GJ article, I thought I would jump right into talking about a mortal-lock favourite of mine: West Side Story. If you haven't seen it (and a lot of folks havent - dudes especially) and you want a lesson in filmmaking craft from a bonafide master then you kind of owe it to yourself to rent this undisputed gem.
Through occasionally hokey-now song and dance sequences, WSS tells the story of star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of a vicious, brutal gang war. Dance gangs. Knify-dance gangs, on the hunt for blood and sing violence.

Based on the groundbreaking stage show of the same name, the film version helped revive the Hollywood musical as a popular genre thanks to its humungous success, both with audience and critics. WSS was the 2nd-highest grossing film of 1961 and won 10 out of the 11 Oscars it was nominated for, the highest number ever won by a musical, and in the few years after its release, films like the The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady continued the trend of enormously popular musical adaptations.
The film suffers from a surfeit of broadly-drawn characters, but it's easy enough to overlook what weaknesses the film contains when the overall picture is so rich with infectious music, inventive visual flourishes and most of all, a seamless marriage of perfectly executed camera work and rhythmic, powerful editing. These latter technical elements demonstrate an artistry that not only captivates the viewer but also helps drive home a fact about West Side Story that I often forget - it's a film about dancing just as much as (or perhaps even more than) it is a film about singing.

Co-directed by choreographer (and original stage director) Jerome Robbins and Hollywood legend Robert Wise, the film and its performers are in a constant state of motion. As a conscious choice, Robbins infused the original stage production with more dancing than had been previously seen in classic musical theatre, seeking  and finding a vibrancy and expressivity of performance. That same spirit animates his film version. In a story about racism, classism, juvenile delinquency and gang warfare there is an exceptionally high number of scenes in which the actors are leaping, running, spinning, doing back-flips, snapping their fingers in unison or 'dance-fighting.' But, that's the choice that was made; this is musical theatre we're talking about, where people sing and dance as a way to work through their emotions. So, in a story about two rival gangs fighting for control of the streets, the 'fighting' is going way more acrobatic and staged than that of say, Boys n the Hood. Still, itworks, and works exceptionally well when you consider that the performers themselves are all old-school show biz triple-threats - acting, singing and dancing their way across the screen with staggering precision and control. If you find yourself being impressed by the dancing seen in a Michael Jackson video or even on So You Think You Can Dance, it all cranks on back to the source, West Side Story.

But it isn't just the dancing and choreography that work to captivate the audience, it's more a question of how the dancing is staged, captured on film and cut together. Check out the opening sequence:

The camera movements and careful composition of each shot in this brilliant sequence are cut together with a rhythm that seamlessly ramps up the tension between the Jets and the Sharks, instantly drawing you into the larger story of the film.
While Robbins can certainly be credited with the dancing, it is certainly Wise's contribution that makes the sequence work. As the celebrated editor of Citizen Kaneand director of a wide variety of other popular genre productions, it's not hard to see that this sequence is the product of a calculated effort by a filmmaker who knows exactly what he's doing. The confidence and efficiency of Wise's in-camera editing through movement and camera placement is astounding, especially within the context of this larger edited sequence. Each shot compliments the one previous and sets up the one following. Every single moment of this opening sequence was carefully planned and the execution is nothing short of brilliant. Even if singing and dancing ain't your cup of tea, you'd be hard-pressed to deny the merits of the filmmaking chops on display here.

As a fan of Hollywood musicals, it's a no-brainer for me to name West Side Story as my favourite, as it's got some of my favourite show-tunes, stars 2 actors who went on to appear in "Twin Peaks" (which I love), features my all-time favourite Hollywood actress (Natalie Wood) and has some of the best sets and costumes you could hope for in such a sweeping song-and-dance epic. As a solid entry in my top 10 favourite films of all time, I can't recommend it enough. Come for the singing, stay for the dancing and expert filmmaking.

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