Where to begin…On the surface I should have loved this movie. Classic film? Yes. Musical? Yes. Natalie Wood? Yes. Stephen Sondheim? YES yes. Romeo and Juliet set in in the 1950s between feuding gangs of greasers? YESYESYES! In the end though, the actual movie? Eh.
Here’s the story as described on Amazon.com: A love affair is fated for tragedy amidst the vicious rivalry of two street gangs the [American] Jets and the [Puerto Rican] Sharks. When Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer) falls for Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the Sharks leader, it's more than these two warring gangs can handle. And as mounting tensions rise, a battle to the death ensues, and innocent blood is shed in a heartbreaking finale.
First, I should say right up front, this is not exactly a family movie. Between the double entendres, themes of racial violence, and occasional brutal attacks between the teens, it is probably about a PG-13 movie. The teens substitute squeaky-clean euphemisms for their cursing, but it is usually pretty clear something else was meant. I know all of this could bother some viewers. I include a couple videos of my favorite songs from this film later in this review, and the statements above apply to those as well (although not so much the warnings about violence).
I love musicals, but this wasn’t like any of the musicals I know and love. The choreography was much more flamboyant than I’m used to, and at times this worked. But you just don’t really expect gang members to be utilizing polished ballet steps. Frequently the dance style clashed really badly with the hardened characters of the gang members. And while the soundtrack is generally amazing, most of the Jet’s songs were pretty mediocre. None of them made much of an impact on me. The only one that really stuck out to me, was the comedic number “Gee, Officer Krupke,” where the teens mock the contemporary pseudo-psychology that tries to diagnose the source of their maladjustment. It was roll on the floor hilarious to me, because I’ve heard all that reasoning before, and hearing the teens themselves mock the grownups’ fabricated excuses? Perfection. But then, I’ve always had a strange sense of humor.
The Sharks’ numbers were better, with Spanish-style dancing, but still what ended up standing out were the romantic numbers – songs like “Tonight” and “Somewhere.” I was probably the last person on earth to hear these songs, and they lived up to the hype. “Somewhere” is a truly beautiful song of longing and seeking for a safe place to be together.
But even better than “Tonight” was its reprise, known as “Quintet.” Five separate characters or character groups are all gearing up for a big night – the Sharks and the Jets for the fight, a shark moll for her boyfriend’s victorious return, and the main lovers for a romantic rendezvous. And all of them harmonizing together. Simply beautiful…if you can get past the fact that neither gang is made up of polished singers.
Another song that really made an impression on me but for mixed reasons was “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love.” Maria and her best friend Anita are arguing over Tony, specifically why Maria shouldn’t be going with him. The song itself is beautiful, the two girls’ unique voices playing off each other and harmonizing wonderfully. But something about the lyrics bothered me. Warning: if you intend to watch the movie, this song contains spoilers – spoilers I won’t repeat, but you may not want to hear the song.
Notice anything strange? Instead of telling Anita she is wrong for keeping them apart simply because they are different races, Maria tells her she doesn’t care whether it’s right or not. “I hear your words and in my head, I know they’re smart, but my heart, Anita, but my heart knows they’re wrong…Right or wrong what else can I do…When loves comes so strong, there is no right or wrong.” This is the “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” that’s so popular in movies and culture today, particularly when we’re dealing with teenagers.
Beyond the excellent score, the story just didn’t do much for me. I generally love this time period and the movies and shows that come out of it, teenage angst and all – movies and shows like Rebel Without a Cause and Happy Days. But this one reeked so heavily of teen angst that it was almost too much even for me. Without the extreme seriousness and heaviness of Rebel Without a Cause or the hilarity of Happy Days it ended up feeling rather schizophrenic. Some scenes were quite funny, lighthearted and ridiculous, while others were brutally sad, and the two styles warred very strangely. I couldn’t decide whether it was a serious drama, or more farcical.
That said, it was an interesting watch, and I do plan on watching it again. I have a feeling it may be one that grows on me. The music alone is worth watching it, if you enjoy musicals. There’s a reason it’s one of the most popular musicals ever. It’s definitely not one of my favorites, but the score and Maria and Tony’s sweet, innocent romance against the dark and violent backdrop of gang violence made it a very unique and generally enjoyable film.