Friday, July 26, 2013

Day 75 - West Side Story

The longest introduction EVER.

I have never seen West Side Story. As a part of the ongoing goal to see one classic movie I have never seen during each month of my “I have never...” journey, sitting through West Side Story seemed to make sense. After all, the film is one of the most acclaimed musicals of all time and still claims the title of earning the most academy awards of any musical film in history. Additionally, people have told me about West Side Story’s amazing story and memorable soundtrack since I was a kid. As such, I prepared to make West Side Story an experience relatively early in my “I have never...” journey. Given today’s unseasonably cool temperatures and spotty weather, I figured tonight was as good as any to see the film. As a result, Rachael helped me track down a copy of West Side Story, and I settled to watch the film for the first time tonight.

I dance to intimidate.
When I began West Side Story I came in mostly blind to the finer details of the story. I knew the movie was an acclaimed musical, I knew it was about gangs that snapped their fingers, and I knew it was a love story. That was it. I didn’t know any more about what to expect from the film or from its underlying storyline. As a result, I began the film with an open mind and some anticipation. “There has to be a reason why everyone says positive things about this movie,” I thought as I hit play and watched as the title screen presented itself. For minutes on end I watched as the same title screen shifted colors but otherwise remained unchanged. Unaware of why this remained the case, I eventually checked to see if something was wrong with the DVD only to determine everything was in order. Restarting the movie, I immediately decided to fast forward through the remainder of the title screen. Finally reaching the opening sequence of the movie, I settled in again as the film introduced the ragtag group of young men known as the Jets. I watched as they danced their way through the streets, which apparently intimidated people given it sent blocks of citizens scurrying away at the sight of high kicks, prances, and twirls.

My immediate reaction to the sight of the opening sequence was one that would remain with me throughout the film. I found it incredibly hard to take the developing plot seriously at the sight of grown men pretending to be young gangsters settling scores with dance fights and songs. In my mind these two things were so opposite one another I couldn’t put them on the same plain. Although I understood the dancing and music was intended to express the emotion and turmoil of the goings on in the New York neighborhood in which the Sharks and Jets lived, I just couldn’t pull the idea of ballet dancing gang members together. Regardless, I stayed focus on the film and resolved to watch it to completion. In turn, I let the film progress, which led to an unraveling story of forbidden love.

Tony meets Maria

Tony sings with Maria

While the story around Riff, Bernardo, Tony, and Maria developed I couldn’t help but feel as though the struggle between societal classes and the love that crossed these bounds was somewhat familiar. As Tony and Maria’s feelings flourished and the turf war between the Jets and Sharks came to a head, I realized the story was simply a twist on the classic plot of Romeo and Juliet. This discovery prompted me to start looking at the musical through a different lens, which made the unfolding events all too predictable. Sure, the songs were catchy and the cinematography was memorable, but the plot was familiar and aged. I knew what was coming before it happened, and that never makes for a good movie watching experience.

Dance fighting with knives?!? Now it's getting real.
Needless to say, I wasn’t digging West Side Story. While I could understand why some people are drawn to the musical and film, the unlikely combination of dancing, gang wars, singing, and a Shakespearean plot didn’t appeal to me. This feeling persisted even as the plot moved to the death of two main characters and the uncertain outcome of Tony and Maria’s fate. At points I actually found myself bored by the predictable storyline, encouraged only by seeing if my predictions of the plot would come true. Eventually, the movie drew to a close with Tony’s death and a moment of unity between the gangs. In a break from the Shakespearean plot, I was actually surprised to see Maria survive at the end of the musical, but that was about the only intriguing aspect of the film I found. It may be sacrilege to some, but West Side Story just wasn’t for me.

Romeo... er Tony, bites the dust.

Tonight’s experience with the West Side Story was one of the rare instances where I didn’t take a lot away from an “I have never...” event. Maybe I didn’t approach the film prepared to look past the obvious contradictions gangsters dancing and singing show tunes, or maybe this one was just too far outside of my personal preferences. Whatever the reason, it is safe to say West Side Story will not be a film or a musical I revisit again. I just didn’t find enough to take away from the film, which limits its value to me. If anything, at least I can now say I finally saw West Side Story, even if it is likely that will not occur again.


  1. As a raging Musical Theatre Geek...I'm not the biggest West Side Story fan. I LOVE the music and the songs (Bernstein and Sondheim...gosh, I LOVE Sondheim!) but tend to fast forward through everything else on the rare instances the movie is on.

    Singin' in the Rain, though...THAT is another story (Literally, I guess, even).

    1. There's another one on my list! Believe it or not, I have never seen Singin' in the Rain... but I hope to at some point in the next nine months. :)

  2. Alright, Caleb, I'll admit that the plot (in retrospect) perhaps wasn't the most original, but the music . . . how could you not love the music?
    (Ryan's Mom)

    1. Oh, don't get me wrong. I thought the music was great. There are a lot of timeless tunes in West Side Story. That stated, I just couldn't get the plot to sync with the music and dancing. They just seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum to me...