West Side Story is a film that exists in its own unique emotional reality, an adaptation of a Broadway show that makes no effort to tone down the original’s necessary, boastful affectations. On stage, especially in musicals, projection is paramount in order for every last member of the audience to see the story, and more importantly, for them to feel it. In cinema, the camera captures the subtlest of movements, from the shiver of a hand to the glance of an eye, and if the actor and director manage to pull it off, it can even use stillness to capture a passing thought. But the musical is the opposite of stillness, and few musicals embody the power of movement in a manner such as this.
From the get go, the dots and dashes on the title card spill downwards like paint to take the shape of Manhattan, as if this New York City is a place brought into existence by sound and colour. While words are definitely exchanged, or in this case lyrics, the introduction of the Jets and the Sharks comes largely in the form of compositions – both musical and visual. Their initial physical altercations are stage-choreography 101, and no one seems in any danger of being injured by a kick or a punch, but their animosity is embodied entirely in the form of movement. Their aggression. Their hesitance. Even their sarcasm, as they let each other pass unharmed, but not unfazed. Every dance, every jump and every time they turn a corner – one of the very same corners they’re fighting over – each movement plays like its own story beat. The cuts are on large moments of movement, and even the stillness is accompanied by the snapping of fingers, a motion that makes the likes of the Jets seem ‘cool’ and a motion that’s also used to cool them down later in the film.
The snapping of fingers becomes not only an auditory and visual constant, but a thematic one. In simple terms, it’s when you know the Sharks and the Jets are up to no good! But it’s also indicative of when to really pay attention to everything around the snaps. One of the most interesting things about West Side Story is how directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins compose each shot, and how the power dynamics of each group come into play right from the beginning. One of the challenges of directing theatre, in cinematic terms at least, is you only have one camera angle to play with. That’s not to say that it’s somehow easier to direct movies, of course. There are more tools at one’s disposal, but also more expectations of how they’re going to be used. Wise and Robbins not only adapt the material, but the form itself, molding this particular work in such a way that it exists between realms, drawing from the best of both worlds and turning spotlights into portraits surrounded by soft focus.
Choreography in musical theatre is individual, but it also deals with the movement of the group. The chorus. The ensemble. How collections of individuals function as a unit, and what their formations say both about the collective, as well as about each person involved. Here, the directors don’t tone it down in terms of scale or potential impact, but instead they put the audience in every single seat of the theatre, allowing the group dynamic to be explored in a multitude of ways.
The composition at play is the kind that even Orson Welles took nearly two decades to perfect (his 1958 film Touch of Evil feels like a masterpiece of motion and composition), and here, it’s blended seamlessly with the musical form. In every initial shot of the Jets, whether they’re still or in motion, Riff is the leader of the pack, standing in front of them and leading every single lateral tracking shot. And yet in almost every case it’s Ice, his second in command, that’s either the tallest or most central point in the frame, as if he’s the anchor of the entire group.
After Riffi dies, it’s Ice who takes over by default. The song “Cool” is his moment, one of the rare group songs that takes place in doors, and it’s here that he uses his position in the gang to its fullest potential. He doesn’t necessarily make a move to change his dynamic with the rest of the Jets, a dynamic that’s albeit altered without their (perhaps defacto?) leader Riffi, but he embodies the centricity and the gravity afforded to him by the filmmakers earlier on, externalizing it in the form of level-headed control. Not the same control dictated by Riffi, but a control that’s far less authoritarian and geared more towards self-preservation. It’s here that the suave finger-snapping that defined the Jets and their bravura becomes the tight lid they put on their collective pressure cooker, as movement becomes something they need to suppress.
Historically, American street gangs have been about preservation in some form or another, and those drawn along ethnic lines have often formed as a response to oppression or authority. One of the side-effects of this is a hyper-masculine culture, one that wouldn’t ordinarily gel with musical theatre – an institution often associated with men who don’t fall in line with traditional masculinity – and yet here we find ourselves with an audacious blend of the two. A situation where masculine aggression takes the form of effeminate movement, and dance becomes the embodiment of cultural tension itself.
My recent re-watch of the film (in glorious 70mm no less!) brought about a stark realization, something I hadn’t registered during viewings when I was much younger. While the Sharks are an exclusively Puerto Rican gang and the Jets are most certainly white, the latter also seem to be ethnically mixed (though perhaps by standards that no longer apply), and a subtle dig at their mothers hints at the fact that they may not be more than 2nd or 3rd generation Americans themselves. While ‘white’ most certainly grew to become a singular institution in America, it’s an institution that once had its gatekeepers, with the Irish, the Italians and other immigrant groups existing on the fringes of society before eventually assimilating or being let in. Not too long ago, the Jets would’ve been the Sharks.
Like much of the choreography and camerawork, the social mobility spoken of in West Side Story is lateral. The gangs are at constant odds with one other, their conflict framed as two opposing sides in profile, and there are only a couple of instances of characters moving upward or downward. For example, Tony’s ascent to Maria’s apartment, which gets him a step further away from the gangs and a step closer to a better life with her once they’ve run away, and conversely, the Jets’ descent into a hellish arena before all hell breaks loose in a knife fight, the first instance of physical violence with actual consequences. But, while there’s ethno-cultural bad blood, it’s always put aside, not matter how momentarily, in the presence of authority figures trying to keep them down. No snitching, sticking it to the man, or what have you.
The hand of the law takes the form of one Lieutenant Schrank. His name is of Germanic descent, and his family has probably been in America a lot longer than the families of the Jets, and certainly those of the Sharks. He’s their common enemy, along with his right hand man Officer Krupke (another name with Germanic origins), and in their song Gee Officer Krupke, they voice their disdain for authority in general, and for the constant re-enforcement of the idea that they’re lazy and worthless despite their troubled upbringings. They’ve fallen into an identity inadvertently created for them, and having been born into an America barely getting over World War II and already involving itself in military conflict in Vietnam and Korea, violence has become a part of their worldview. When Doc smacks Tony in the face, he laments the fact that violence is the only language they understand – but perhaps it’s not entirely their fault.
On the other side of the conflict, the Sharks were signing “America,”a song about what the nation means to them. The Puerto Rican women praising its industry and freedom, but the men on the other hand, complaining about how they’re treated by the society that offers them all this.
Lots of new housing with more space/Lots of doors slamming in our face
I’ll get a terrace apartment/Better get rid of your accent
Life can be bright in America/If you can fight in America
Life is alright in America/If you’re all white in America
The original musical was written around the time the American Civil Rights movement began, and the movie came out right in the middle of it. The United States is no stranger to racial tension, but it’s astounding how both then and now, West Side Story was able to so boldly articulate the hypocrisy of the ‘American Dream,’ a promise at once aspirational and exclusionary, in the form of a light-hearted song. A promise shouted from the rooftops but a promise that comes with caveats, presented here as a flirtatious argument.
The promise of upward mobility and acceptance amongst the ranks, but only after you’ve danced to see who gets the basketball court.
It’s a story that ends in tragedy, as is expected of one that borrows its structure from Romeo and Juliet, but as opposed to the naïveté of young love, much of that tragedy speaks to the consequences of a volatile society. And, while its striking relevance today is a sign of how much progress is yet to be made, the film is one that has red-hot anger at social injustice flowing through its veins, and it spits it out in the form of two of humanity’s earliest and most basic art forms: music and movement. A pure expression of rage and discontentment if there ever was one, masked by a colourful smile.