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West Side Story

West Side Story  

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  1. 1. Does West Side Story belong on the AFI List?

    • Yes
      12
    • No
      3
  2. 2. Should both West Side Story AND Singin' In The Rain be included?

    • West Side Story ONLY
      2
    • Singin' In The Rain ONLY
      2
    • Keep both
      7
    • Get rid of both
      0

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  • Poll closed on 03/29/19 at 07:00 AM

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Amy & Paul rumble with 1961's musical Shakespeare riff West Side Story! They compare the film's colors to modern art, praise the intelligence Rita Moreno brings to Anita, and ask how Elvis would have performed in the lead role. Plus: writer and Stephen Sondheim fan Anthony King (Gutenberg: The Musical) gives us his perspective on where this fits in Sondheim's career.

 

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I'm also not sure if this really counts, but I've always loved this bit:

 

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As someone who is currently making his way through Elvis’ filmography, I just wanted to say Elvis does not have a knife in Jailhouse Rock. He kills a man with his bare hands! That’s what lands him in jail.

Also, Elvis dies in Love Me Tender, his first film role, and Flaming Star, one of his Westerns. There may be others as well.

As far as whether or not Elvis would be a good Tony, personally, I don’t think it would be a good fit. However, it's not that I don't think he could pull it off acting-wise. I’ve seen quite a few of his movies now and the issues with them are rarely due to his acting. He feels like a part of whatever world he’s in - even if that world is completely ridiculous. I think he would be capable of handling the material, but he’s incapable of not being Elvis. (I’ve wondered in some of my Letterboxd reviews why they don’t just call all his characters “Elvis” because he’s not fooling anyone.)

Again, it’s not that he can’t act, but his look is so iconic that it becomes a distraction. I think he would have come off as too sexy as well. I think Tony needs to feel a bit sweet and vulnerable. And while Elvis had a great voice with remarkable range, I don’t think it would be great fit for West Side Story’s style of music. 

He also never did an accent. I’m not saying he couldn’t, but maybe that would have been beyond his capabilities. I don’t know, but with New York being such a crucial backdrop, having your lead speaking with a thick Southern drawl might look and sound a bit silly.

Still, I think Elvis was a solid enough actor that had he been given better material, he could have done well. Or at least, better than he did.

Oh, and since I'm on the topic, Clambake and Stay Away, Joe would both be good candidates for HDTGM :) The first one is just flat out ridiculous and the second has Burgess Meredith made up to be a Native American. It is upsetting.

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I'll just repost my Letterboxd comments to get the discussion going:

I understand that the casting of the leads isn't that great and that the use of white actors in the Puerto Rican roles looks bad to modern eyes and that not every scene is perfectly exectuted, but whatever . . . as soon as one of the many brilliant dance numbers kicks into high gear it brings tears to my eyes, every time. Has group choreography ever been shot and edited this well?

I was also struck this time by how relevant the themes about American race relations have remained, which suggests an evergreen quality to the material. At times, West Side Story still feels trenchant and caustic in its commentary: witness the cops treating the white hoodlums more kindly than the brown ones (though still not that kindly), the poor white folks complaining about how the immigrants are "taking over" . . . are we sure this was written 60 years ago? I guess they do also say things like "Daddy-O."

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Haven't gotten to the episode yet, but I just want to dedicate this post to the perfection that is EGOT winner Rita Moreno.

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(And if y'all haven't seen One Day at a Time pls do because it's great and Netflix is dumb for cancelling it.)

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Some other thoughts:

-More on the racial commentary feeling amazingly advanced: the detective in the movie claims to be on the Jets' side (because they are white), but then when they won't give him what he wants he starts turning his anti-immigrant rhetoric around on them too (making fun of their Polish or Italian parents). That's really interesting and gets at some of what Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at in talking about "whiteness."  How some groups were once considered "not white" (Irish, Italians, Jews) and later got to consider themselves white and started punching down at the remaining non-white (often the newest immigrants). This movie shows that progression in one character in real time.

-Natalie Wood is probably the weakest actor in the movie, but I think she delivers the "feel" of the tragic lover archetype well enough. She also saves her best scenes for the end (IMO), after Tony's death. I also can't be too objective here, as I always had kind of a crush on Natalie Wood, in part because she reminds me of one of my big high school crushes (that girl was half-Russian and half-Mexican, which helped me kind of buy Wood as a Puerto Rican, though I know she was fully Russian in real life).

-Michael Bay talking about this movie is a must-read. He's actually pretty insightful about what it does. 

https://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/18/movies/watching-movies-with-michael-bay-a-connoisseur-of-illusions.html

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I’m commenting as I’m listening, and I hate to break it our hosts, but yeah, Maria doesn’t date again. She doesn’t move on. We have to check our cynicism at the door and accept that what Tony and Maria has is True Love. You don’t just move on from that. And remember, this is Romeo and Juliet. And while Maria may not physically die like Juliet, her notion of romantic love certainly does. She will not recover from Tony’s death.

But if you want to know what happens to her, I think the movie gives us some visual clues. First, the image of her holding Tony is reminiscent of La Pieta, the statue of Jesus’ mother Mary holding his body after the crucifixion.

west-side-story-maria-over-tony-dying-te 

La-Piedad-Miguel-Angel-EG47_46_1.JPG

And of course the image of her in the shawl at the end further evokes the image of the Virgin Mary.

(Not the movie image, but the moment I’m thinking of)

001ec94a26ba0b2d36c312.jpg

So given these images and the tragedy of the situation, I think it’s a pretty safe bet Maria becomes a nun. It’s not the end of her literal life, but perhaps it’s the end of her worldly life.

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1 hour ago, AlmostAGhost said:

I kind of wanted Maria to gun some fools down at the end

Double bill with the It's a Wonderful Life killing spree ending.

 

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I've been a lifelong musical fan. I've seen this show live before when I was very young, maybe 10 or 11 (I'm 35 now). First time I've seen the movie. Really hated it. It was just so... community theater as a movie. There's something about the twirling that really erases any and all intimidating factors of either of these gangs. It was a mediocre re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, and honestly I'd take Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet over this movie any day of the week. If we need to replace it with a musical, I'd take Chicago over this one even. Really hated this movie, and I was shocked that I did. I thought this would be one of my favorites on the list. 

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So, I didn't hate this movie, but I was definitely not as in love with it as Paul was. It is just so very beat for beat, scene for scene, Romeo and Juliet that I found it distracting. What I found more interesting, and what I really wish Amy and Paul had discussed, was the points where it does depart from Shakespeare:  

- There's no Rosaline, but instead Tony is sidetracked by his job for Doc (the Priest). I think this really detracts from the Romeo as a love sick teen boy that endears him to the audience, and maybe makes him seem like a more sexual person? 

- Instead of them setting up a potential marriage proposal during the balcony scene, they set up a meeting in the bridal dress shop where they have a symbolic wedding instead of a real one, (did they have premarital sex?) 

- Instead of Maria faking her own suicide, Anita (the nurse) tells them all that Chino (Paris) killed her. That scene also seemed an amalgam of when the nurse goes to tell Romeo he better marry Juliet or he's a turd, and Mercutio and the band harass her, and also the scene where the nurse goes to the Priest where Romeo is hiding and tells Romeo Juliet is waiting for him. 

- I guess you could say Tony constructively commits suicide when he's looking for Chino? Obviously the gun is the poison, and Maria points it at everyone and asks if there will be one bullet left for her. This is the biggest change - Maria lives. Why did they do that? That's such a major and fundamental change, that I really wondered why the show went that way. 

All that said, more random thoughts:  I think WSS is fine as a movie, and as a musical. Maybe I'm too used to dance and theater to find the juxtaposition of cheesy 50's gang members doing leaps and turns to be particularly jarring. I have to disagree on Amy's distaste for Natalie Wood. I thought she did just fine.  I also have to disagree with Paul that this is a better musical than Singin' in the Rain. The main characters in SITR did all of their own dancing and singing, and acting. I think their performances were so far beyond WSS that it's not even a question. Sure, SITR has a light plot, but it's at least original. Like I said up top, this is just sooooo Romeo and Juliet that I couldn't stop making comparisons. I've also watched the Baz Luhrmann version, and read the play so very many times. I'd also take that version over this any day. Quick bit of trivia: Claire Danes and and Leonardo DiCaprio also did not get along. But holy smokes did they have the best chemistry! 

I'd keep WSS on the list for it's iconic nature, but not because it's the best musical of all time. It isn't. 

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2 hours ago, WatchOutForSnakes said:

I also have to disagree with Paul that this is a better musical than Singin' in the Rain. The main characters in SITR did all of their own dancing and singing, and acting. I think their performances were so far beyond WSS that it's not even a question.

This is interesting, because "best" depends on what you are looking for. I'd agree that the individual performers in Singin' in the Rain are more impressive (though . . . Rita Moreno gives everyone a run for their money), but in terms of filmmaking I'm more impressed by West Side Story. So I'm with Paul in thinking this is the best movie musical ever (though of course I have not seen everything).

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I also got a bit tired of Paul (and lots of people) kind of slagging off on Oklahoma! as a musical. The movie is NOT very good but I love the music, the dance, how it was a revolutionary musical, and a lot of the deeper themes that are involved. I think it is a shame that it is so popular in high schools because it garners a reputation of not being very good or deep when it has a lot of great, pertinent themes. 

 

Paul, check out the 1999 Live on Broadway version directed by acclaimed British director Trevor Nunn and starring Hugh Jackman

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On 3/21/2019 at 1:40 PM, sycasey 2.0 said:

Some other thoughts:

-More on the racial commentary feeling amazingly advanced: the detective in the movie claims to be on the Jets' side (because they are white), but then when they won't give him what he wants he starts turning his anti-immigrant rhetoric around on them too (making fun of their Polish or Italian parents). That's really interesting and gets at some of what Ta-Nehisi Coates gets at in talking about "whiteness."  How some groups were once considered "not white" (Irish, Italians, Jews) and later got to consider themselves white and started punching down at the remaining non-white (often the newest immigrants). This movie shows that progression in one character in real time.

It's simply not true that European immigrants were considered non-white. The very first Congress passed a naturalization act reserved for "free white persons of good moral character", which Europeans always passed. We had a explicit racial caste system, and Europeans were always officially categorized as white. Chicanos could be categorized differently depending on the time & place, but not European immigrants. Fox & Guglielmo's paper "Defining America’s Racial Boundaries: Blacks, Mexicans, and European Immigrants, 1890–1945" goes into more detail on this.

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My parents had the vinyl LP of the music here, so soon after the AFI released their 97 list it was one of the first I sought ought. I didn't see Singin in the Rain until many years later, and I agree with others who say WSS is the more cohesive film. That's because Singin in the Rain is a jukebox musical. But I think it's a better film, with WSS just being a particularly distinctive riff on Romeo & Juliet.

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23 hours ago, Turboiv said:

I've been a lifelong musical fan. I've seen this show live before when I was very young, maybe 10 or 11 (I'm 35 now). First time I've seen the movie. Really hated it. It was just so... community theater as a movie. There's something about the twirling that really erases any and all intimidating factors of either of these gangs. It was a mediocre re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet, and honestly I'd take Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet over this movie any day of the week. If we need to replace it with a musical, I'd take Chicago over this one even. Really hated this movie, and I was shocked that I did. I thought this would be one of my favorites on the list. 

I agree with everything you said here! Especially the community theater part. Tony’s first song makes me cringe. I

thought I would be singing along and loving this movie. But both the leads are drips. Every minute Rita Moreno was not on screen, I was bored. I don’t think I’ll finish it. 

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6 hours ago, FictionIsntReal said:

It's simply not true that European immigrants were considered non-white. The very first Congress passed a naturalization act reserved for "free white persons of good moral character", which Europeans always passed. We had a explicit racial caste system, and Europeans were always officially categorized as white. Chicanos could be categorized differently depending on the time & place, but not European immigrants. Fox & Guglielmo's paper "Defining America’s Racial Boundaries: Blacks, Mexicans, and European Immigrants, 1890–1945" goes into more detail on this.

In the context I referred to, I don't think Coates is referencing any specific codified legal language, more that under his definition "white" means the "in group," people who are widely considered "Real Americans" by the cultural elite. At various points in history, some European immigrant groups have not been seen that way.

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Note: I updated the poll to include the West Side Story vs. Singin' In The Rain rivalry proposed by Amy & Paul.

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1 hour ago, DanEngler said:

Note: I updated the poll to include the West Side Story vs. Singin' In The Rain rivalry proposed by Amy & Paul.

Both movies are deserving. FIVE STARS.

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19 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

This is interesting, because "best" depends on what you are looking for. I'd agree that the individual performers in Singin' in the Rain are more impressive (though . . . Rita Moreno gives everyone a run for their money), but in terms of filmmaking I'm more impressed by West Side Story. So I'm with Paul in thinking this is the best movie musical ever (though of course I have not seen everything).

 

4 hours ago, DanEngler said:

Note: I updated the poll to include the West Side Story vs. Singin' In The Rain rivalry proposed by Amy & Paul.

I don't understand where this dichotomy came from.  By my count, this is at least the fourth musical they've covered so far, including Wizard of Oz and Swing Time.  Why is Singin' In the Rain getting singled out?  To me, West Side Story is a different beast than those, because it was based on a pre-existing stage show rather than being written directly for the screen.

The reason I've seen most of these film adaptations of stage musicals is because my younger sister went through a phase where it was all she would watch.  25 years later, she has an MFA and works at a theatre company, and I asked her to poll her workplace to see what they thought were the best film adaptations of stage musicals.  West Side Story was one of their top choices, as well as Chicago and maybe Carousel.  That's the debate I think we should (and will) have when we get to Sound of Music.  I think there's plenty of room on this list to include Singin' in the Rain AND Wizard of Oz AND West Side Story.  But I think the debate between Sound of Music and West Side Story will be much more contentious.

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Personally, I love Singin’ in the Rain, and if you asked me a week ago, I probably would have put it above West Side Story. However, on this re-watch WSS felt like the better picture. When it comes down to it, SitR is a great movie, but the plot feels kind of like pap. It’s a jukebox musical about famous actors trying to stay famous, having their talent recognized, and falling in love. WSS feels more visceral to me with its themes. Outside of Tony, Maria, and Anita, there aren’t really “good guys” and “bad guys,” just points of view. And the movie does a decent job of presenting both points of view. No, it’s not perfect, but it has a lot more weight than just “how can we fool everyone into thinking that this woman who can’t sing actually can so we can stay rich?”

I mean, yeah, it’s essentially Romeo & Juliet, but it adapted really well. It delivers a contemporary message that is able to extend beyond Shakespeare’s intention.

In R&J, Shakespeare introduces us to the Capulets and Montagues as being “alike in dignity,” and we really don’t get too much in terms of their rationale for disliking each other. R&J can’t be together just sort of...because? And in the end, we’re sad because we recognize what a waste it is for two young people to die without reason.

WSS, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same balance. While both groups are equal in street rep, it’s clear that the “whiter” gang is favored by the police. I think this distinction helps set it apart from R&J while introducing its own themes about race and clashing cultures. When Tony dies, we not only think “how tragic to die over something so silly,” but hopefully, what can I personally do to make sure this never happens again? It forces the audience to reflect on their own prejudices in a way that R&J doesn’t. 

Again, I love SitR. I would absolutely not remove it from the list. But for me, WSS is more emotionally satisfying and that puts it ahead of SitR on my own personal list. 

ETA: Just continued listening and the are basically making my same point. Oops. Guess I should listen to an entire episode before commenting 😁

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4 hours ago, bleary said:

 

I don't understand where this dichotomy came from.  By my count, this is at least the fourth musical they've covered so far, including Wizard of Oz and Swing Time.  Why is Singin' In the Rain getting singled out?  

I made the comparison because Paul had mentioned that WSS made him question whether or not SITR was the best musical of all time. I stand by thinking SITR is better, but that's just my personal taste. I can understand the arguments against it. My personal favorite musical of all time is Annie. Is it the best movie? Probably not, but Annie was such a huge role model for me in her spunk and toughness (at least in the film adaptation). It has a special place in my heart. 

I get what Cameron H. says about the stakes being higher and the themes being deeper in WSS than in Romeo and Juliet. I think I'll need to watch it a second time so that I'm less distracted by the comparison. I still find the most interesting thing about it is how WSS ends with Tony's death, but no suicides. 

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3 hours ago, WatchOutForSnakes said:

I still find the most interesting thing about it is how WSS ends with Tony's death, but no suicides. 

I would consider Tony seeking out Chino to be suicide.  I also think of Maria’s fate as a kind of metaphorical suicide. She’s not really going to “live” anymore, if you know what I mean.

(I love Annie, too!)

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