West Side Story – The Wiz Retro Rewind

Some things are great forever…some have an expiration date. For this fact alone, some “All-Time Greats” need a serious reality check to see if they still stand up or can still be considered great at this present time. Enter “The Wiz Retro Rewind,” where The Wiz re-examines some important and beloved films to see if its still good, still relevant or if could be expanded upon or updated. 

And for a first movie, boy did I pick a doozy

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West Side Story, based on the book by Arthur Laurents which was turned into a play, which are also loose adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. The movie has won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture and is the only film to have two directors win Best Director for the same movie (Robbins created the play and thus was important for the musical scenes, Wise directed the more of the scenes less reliant on music). It’s #51 on AFI’s Top 100 Movies List and it’s #2 on AFI’s Best Musicals list, only being best by Singin’ in the Rain.

So, as you can see, West Side Story has been honored and praised well past the time it was made in 1961. To many musical lovers, it’s a true classic of song, dance and love. To some, it’s the quintessential musical, with its incredible dance numbers and its vivacious colors. But, with so many films to see for any film lover, or just for someone who wants a good movie to see: is it truly still worth your time after 50 years?

Well, it depends really…

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The Art of Dance, With Perfect Body and Form

The very first thing that is noticeable when you first watch the movie is the dancing. It’s hard not to feel exhausted watching such able-bodied actors and actresses move and dance like ballerinas on PCP, but in a great way. For such an extravagantly choreographed movie, so much so that little things like small conversations can blow up in to a musical number, it gives the right amount of whimsy without feeling overboard or overly saccharine.

It’s easy to look at pictures or clips of this movie and think of the men in this movie as prancing ninnies looking like greaser thugs, yet the film’s cast has the right amount of light fluff and dark tone that even the heavier parts of the movie works, which is quite an accomplishment.

Is it weird that I noticed the fitness and physique of all the actors in this movie? Seriously, to do some of the things they did in this movie, you would have to be in great shape, especially George Chakiris, who plays Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican gang The Sharks (I know…we’ll get to that in a bit). Being a fan of musicals myself, few movies pop into my head that has this good of a cast who can both sing and dance so well.

But again, the dancing and the choreography is simply astonishing to watch. So many moving parts perfectly entwined in harmony; so many different styles that don’t feel out-of-place; so many different colors and musical notes that with lesser movies would be overkill (watch Across the Universe for that). And yet, even after all this time, it’s an incredibly solid musical with great songs like “Somewhere,” “America,” “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” still feel like songs that can be enjoyed to this very day.

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Never Has Gang Warfare Looked So…Colorful

The movie pulls off it’s setting with serious style and skill. The film makes no bones where it’s set: it’s the rough streets of New York, where gang culture is prevalent. Yet, with these shots of dark chain-link fenced basketball courts and drab highway overpasses, they still sprinkle in some colorful reds, blues, pinks and yellows, which make a perfect clash representation of mixed race relation.

Even when the tragic events of the movie start peppering in the movie, there’s still subtle lighting and coloring that doesn’t feel odd or distracting in the tone and feel of the movie. It’s not candy colored like some technicolor movies tend to be, but it isn’t bellowed in darkness either.

Take a look at that picture: That’s the dance 45 minutes into the film. Look at the clashing of colors, wardrobe, lighting and placing. For so many colors and so many styles to fit so well in this film, giving both the characters character and feel just by how they dress and light, is excellent to watch.

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Wait a second…Mixed Race Relations?

Oh yes, it’s about a white guy, played by Richard Beymer) falling in love with a young puerto rican girl…played by Natalie Wood. Yeah…serious white washing in this film. It’s not as bad as Breakfast at Tiffany’s or The Jazz Singer, mind you, but it takes a bit to get over the fact that most of the Sharks are just really really tanned white guys. Also, it feels like there really is only one real Puerto Rican in this film: Rita Moreno, who plays Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend (who is also fantastic in this film)

In fact, it’s a real distraction throughout the entire film. Seeing Natalie Wood struggle with sounding spanish-ish (until she actually has to sing and dance, which she is quite good at) just makes the romance part of this film not really work so well in terms of the differences of cultures.

It’s easy to say “Forget about that, it’s just a part of its time!” but you can’t really shake that Tony looks like Maria’s older brother…only Maria fake and baked with the cast of Jersey Shore before hand. It’s a shame, really, because this movie uses his the story of Romeo and Juliet so well, it’s a shame that time is going to luster its main plot device due to some white washing.

It’s not even that the actors or actresses are bad, they are quite good. But the fact that they make sure you know they are supposed to be another race (the song “America” is literally about that), turns those thematic conflicts into some major distractions.

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Where are thou Anton?

Here’s the weird thing about this movie though: it works as a Shakespearean tragedy. Seriously, this is possibly the best interpretation of Romeo and Juliet put on film, which is astounding when you watch this film. Yes, even better than the classic Romeo and Juliet movie made by Franco Zeffrelli (and not the one with Leonardo DiCaprio…shame on you if you thought that…double shame if you said Haille Stainfield too).

The movie is a literal interpretation of the actual story, just with lots of song and dance. If you look at the lens of this being an adaptation or reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet, suddenly a lot of the problems of the film are not there. The strange romance; the unnecessary fighting: Under the scope of being Romeo and Juliet, this film really works effectively.

Like how fast Tony and Maria fall in love, thinking about marriage…after TWO DAYS. When it’s a love at first sight/star-crossed lovers movie, it can get eye-rollingly stupid. But what makes the movie work, and not only work but still one of the best movies, is that it’s a great interpretation of Shakespeare.

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Do The White Thing

So, as a re-interpretation of Shakespeare, it really works. As an inspiration for Spike Lee films? Um, no.

When putting the film through the relevant scope of people who watch movies in 2015, the movie looks too colorful and whimsical, despite it’s rather drab theme. Also, most will find that the film washes over racism not only through its casting, but also by its interpretation of Puerto Rican’s as hot-blooded, overly machismo men who do everything in pizazz and style.

There’s also the fact that there is a sub theme of kids being improperly supervised and living in a poor, damning environment, which is also essentially glossed over for the tastes of movie goers today. The movie is very much what many would call “A Film of It’s Time”. For those of the uninitiated, it’s code for “Politically Incorrect” for people who can only see in their own world.

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Ferguson: The Musical?

Here’s a fun exercise! Let’s take this movie and try to remake it for modern times. Would it work?

Answer: No.

First off, race relations is still a very touchy subject that, in the USA at least, can’t be trivialized into a rompus musical filled with dance numbers and songs.

Next, although gang warfare and lifestyle is still very relevant in cities, it’s not a push button subject as much as it used to be.

Unfortunately, for West Side Story to be remade it would have to be controversial. It would have to really dive in on race relations and it would have been relevant for today.

Enter Ferguson: The Musical.

Yeah, sounds like a terrible idea, right? Think about it though: For this film to be considered relevant for this time period, you’d have to change the Jets and Sharks into Minorities and Cops.

And it would be nearly impossible to keep the Shakespeare element, so it wouldn’t really be West Side Story. Unless you make it about a black woman falling in love with a white cop…and that isn’t racy or controversial at all. In fact, it’s downright stupid.

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So, Should I See It? Is It Still Relevant?

Who Should See It:

Musical Lovers
Shakespeare Lovers
Dance Enthusiasts

Who Shouldn’t See It:

Distracted by Whitewashing
Race Relations Pushed to the Side
Can’t Tolerate Races as Type-Casts

So, West Side Story isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure. But I can’t help but admire and love it despite its age. The beautiful sets and dance numbers, along with an incredible interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, gives this film a life that may live well beyond its years for some people.

For others, it will be a sign of how bad film used to be when it comes to representing minorities and will be glad it can never be made again.

The Wiz Retro Rewind #1

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