DIRECTOR(S): Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Vibrant, colourful, dark and violent. West Side Story is as an important adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version, which is as far as I’m concerned, one of the most accessible and coolest versions to date. But upon seeing this, the competition is now well and truly open.
Though West Side Story is not strictly a Romeo And Juliet adaptation, it’s a thinly veiled one, but with one significant difference. I won’t say what it is, as even though this is now celebrating its 50th Anniversary, some may still not have seen this, as I hadn’t until yesterday. As an adaptation, this is first rate, close in tone and structure but with a sharp, witty direction; new, colourful and very 60’s.
But it’s as a musical that this film demonstrates it true weight, with some of cinema’s greatest numbers, executed with the same innovative direction, large wide-screen staging and cinematography on a scale that made what I believe, to be true golden era of screen musicals, what it was. It looks staged, but what a stage!
The story is as important as the songs and the songs represent the characters more than some of the 1940’s so-called Golden Era ever did. At the heart of this was Rodgers and Hammerstein but this off to one side, being co-directed by the man who ten years earlier, pushed a completely different genre, Science Fiction, into the more intellectual direction with The Day The Earth Stood Still, and would later bring us the Sound Of Music, and the love it or hate it, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
But its innovations begin with the film’s opening. The Overture builds to the opening of the film, seamlessly, with the multicoloured animation sequence culminating with the building the streets of New York, and landing in the middle of the slums where the gang action begins.
Greese owes a huge debt to this film, with its adult casting of teenagers and balletic dance numbers as a way of interpreting gangs. But this is not Greese. This is darker, harder and more violent, as were Greese is more sexual in nature. But both are enjoyable to watch with large-scale choreography and a real sense of the nature of dance and the physical skills and stamina required to perform it.
Winner of 10 Academy Awards, this was the most well received musical in film history by the A.M.P.A.S., and certainly not without good reason. But is this the greatest musical of all time as many would argue? Not in my opinion but it is certainly one of the best but it’s all very subjective. This had some of the best songs and dance performances that I have ever seen, with memorable tune after tune.