Wednesday, December 3, 2008
Breeze It, Buzz It, Easy Does It
I’ve been trying to write something about WEST SIDE STORY over the past few days but it’s proved difficult, partly because I’ve had my mind on other things and partly because I’m dealing with annoying computer issues. But mostly it’s because what am I really supposed to say about WEST SIDE STORY anyway? Is there really any possibility that after just one viewing I’m going to shed any new light on this film that people have been watching and loving for over forty five years? It’s a tall order, to put it mildly. But since I’ve seen it now I feel like I have to say something. The American Cinematheque ran a gorgeous new 70MM print of it over the holiday weekend and I made it a point to go. It was like I had saved finally seeing this movie for just the right occasion. In the introduction we were informed that not only was this a newly restored print we were seeing, but the first time the film had been seen theatrically since its initial release with the intermission intact, as intended by Robert Wise. United Artists had decided to do without it once the film went wide. The problem in writing about it is that I want to say, “WEST SIDE STORY is terrific!” and anyone reading this would naturally say, well yeah, we knew that already. But just go with me here.
Honest admission: I went to see it, fully knowing what the film was, but once it began and the music started a tiny voice spoke up in the back of my head saying, “Oh right, this is a musical,” and I braced myself, not really sure if I was in the mood. But that feeling soon went away as I found myself gripped to everything onscreen. WEST SIDE STORY feels to me like an attempt in 1961 to break the film musical out of its chains and do something new with the form. At this point in time the musical unit at MGM had pretty much died out and some of the ones made over at Fox like MY FAIR LADY don’t feel like they’re doing much more than plunking down the camera and photographing it. But WEST SIDE STORY feels like a different kind of stylization than any other film made in the genre up to this point. The immensely striking overhead shots of New York feel different than any other footage of the city I’ve ever seen and make us believe right from the start that this is all really taking place there. The entire film may not all be shot on location as much as this or the opening number that immediately follows may lead us to believe, but the heightened feeling makes it almost seem like the filmmakers had a Manhattan-sized backlot constructed just for the making of this film. Right from the start the visuals feel like an attempt to provide the cinematic equivalent of the boldness of Leonard Bernstein’s music and what I always perceive as his sound. It was a truly thrilling experience to sit through this film.
Speaking of that music, I guess I never was fully aware exactly how many of the songs from this show I already knew. Of course I can’t compare it to any stage version but some of these sequences are simply so striking that I can’t deny how effective they are—I guess now I know where a few elements in Jacques Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT came from as well. Even when I could have sworn that I head a few people in the Egyptian audience singing along with the lyrics I couldn’t get all that upset. And when everyone burst into applause at the end of a few numbers, with the loudest responses coming after “America” and “Cool” (which, probably my favorite part of the movie, is truly, absolutely jaw-dropping) I was clapping right along with them. And yes, I can now fully appreciate how stars Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn turned up decades later on TWIN PEAKS, not to mention George Chakiris’s appearance in ROCHEFORT and I have to mention how gorgeous Natalie Wood is. But more than anything I feel like I’ve finally learned why Rita Moreno, playing Anita, is so famous (you mean it wasn’t just THE ELECTRIC COMPANY?) and all I can say is Holy Cow. She’s absolutely astonishing.
Doing a little research on the film leads me to a history of a difficult shoot telling that co-director Jerome Robbins was fired after falling behind schedule, leaving the rest of the film to be directed by Robert Wise, who was already in charge of the straight dramatic scenes. But I don’t want to get too absorbed in the turmoil behind it all jut yet. For now, I just want to remember the amazing viewing experience I had at the Cinematheque. When compared to musicals of recent years that I have seen, some of which have received massive acclaim, seeing this film is like traveling to the moon after years of remaining earthbound. And that’s a little of what I got out of just one 70MM viewing of WEST SIDE STORY. It has a cinematic pulse like few other musicals I’ve ever seen. But, like I said, everybody except for me already knew that.