Rewatching West Side Story: Four Things I Noticed

I watched West Side Story this weekend for the first time in years, and I'd really forgotten what a gem it is. I'd always liked the movie, but I'd mostly seen it as a top-notch adaptation of an already excellent musical and not a unique work of art in its own right. In this viewing, I realized what a special piece it is, and there were four things that stuck out to me:

1) Visual Storytelling



It seems paradoxical, but musicals can in some way rely more on visuals to tell their stories than non-musicals can. Because music exists on its own, untethered from specific visuals, musical sequences in some ways resemble silent film more than sound film. I was struck by the use of gestures, dance, and camera techniques to tell a story without dialogue, particularly in the opening sequence.

2) The Interplay of Camera and Dance



Cinematography and choreography are challenging art forms; combining them is even more difficult. I was struck by how the camera deftly moves with the motion without missing a beat. "When You're a Jet" and "Officer Krupke" both riveted me in this way.

3) Symbolism



The movie obviously follows Romeo and Juliet closely, but I was intrigued by other visuals that play with the Romeo and Juliet storyline. Specifically, at the end of the movie, Maria is left looking like Jesus's mother Mary (Maria in other languages), holding Tony—as if he is a sacrifice to provoke some reflection on a culture of violence, which the film seems to hope he is.

4) Political Changes



When my roommates and I started watching the movie, we were caught by the difference in its outlook and modern political outlooks. In a racially-divided society, we can still relate to it, but its equivalence between the Jets and the Sharks would at least seem somewhat old-fashioned in today's film.

Comments

  1. I need to watch this. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis Zach.

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