West Side Story is a remake of a classic film that I had never seen before. Let me confess, I have never been very keen on musicals. Is that actually pretty dumb? I admit I enjoyed this film a lot.
I found it interesting that this film is not unlike Belfast. Both films deal with hate of one group against another coupled with demands from zealots in the group to amplify hatred rather than finding a resolution. Some people don’t want to find solutions; they want to fight. both films have a boy and girl from each group attracted to each other. Both have outstanding production values.
The West side story is really an ancient oft repeated story, but it is no less important for that. It is a crucially important theme. Many times we have learned that we have not learned enough about it because we keep creating a trap for young lovers and others. The background to the film is is the enmity between 2 gangs in New York and the lovers caught in the melee.
The first line from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliette, which explores the same theme, makes a very important point in its opening paragraph:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
And that is the point—two groups that are actually very similar hate each other and draw blood, making unclean hands. And for what purpose? Very often as Shakespeare said, the two groups are alike. Sometimes the more alike the more vicious the fighting.
In that play it was the Montagues and the Capulets and the dynamite created when a young girl from one family and a boy from the other fell in love with each other. The issue was the same as the issue in this film. Can the hatred keep the lovers apart? What is more powerful , love or hate? In this film it was the Jets against the Sharks, but it could just as well be the Catholics and the Protestants as in the other film nominated for best film, Belfast. It could just as well be the Conservatives and Liberals, Republicans and Democrats, Russians and Ukrainians, Hutus and Tutsis, or Mennonites from Winker versus Mennonites from Steinbach, or vaxxers against anti-vaxxers. All groups can come to hate the “other.” It is easy to fall into hatred. Getting out is not so easy.
After Steven Spielberg announced that he was interesting in renewing this old musical he explained why he wanted to do that. This is what he said:
“Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”
The film has a lot going for it. Great art design, excellent music with familiar tunes, well sung by beautiful young people, and one old person who starred as a younger person in the earlier version. Everyone should see this film and make up their own mind. I am just not entirely convinced that a musical with stylized violence is the best way to deal with such classic themes. But that’s OK. Every film does not have to be best in its class.