I spent the holiday weekend hanging out at my parents’ house, which means I watched a LOT of movies (expect a flurry of reviews over the next few days!). The first one Mom and I sat down for, though, was the musical West Side Story, which I’ve probably seen 86 bazillion times but not since I was about 14 years old. We’d both been reminded of it recently and decided it was time for a screening, and so screen it we did.
I wasn’t surprised to find that it’s still pretty great (though not without some flaws and a healthy helping of cheese in places, I will say). But what did surprise me was how completely different a movie West Side Story is when you’re 35 than it was when you were 14.
You see, when I was a kid watching West Side Story, West Side Story was a movie about tragic romance. And that was ALL it was a movie about. The whole film was Maria and Tony to me — the way they looked at each other, the way they kissed, the agony of what happens to them, the desperate desire to experience love that intense some day (though one would hope less tragic — so far, so good).
As an adult, on the other hand, the romance part of the film became almost a minor subplot for me, in part because it seemed a lot more ridiculous as an adult than it did as a kid (love at first sight — feh), but also because there were too many other elements of the movie that were far more captivating. When the movie first started, I was almost immediately obsessed with the sets and the dancing, for example, both of which are phenomenal. But it didn’t take long before I had moved from there into total fascination with the elements of the story involving the clash between the whites of New York City and the Puerto Ricans sharing the same streets.
As a kid, the racism story didn’t really exist to me at all in WSS, believe it or not — I had no context in which to place it, having no direct experiences or even a vague understanding that people were different and their differences caused friction. I got that the Jets and Sharks didn’t like each other, but I didn’t really get why, nor, for that matter, did I actually care.
All grown up, and with discrimination experiences both witnessed in the real world and absorbed from additional films and books, that aspect of the story became my primary focus. And it’s because of that that I spent most of the second half of the film thinking about another movie I’d been meaning to rewatch recently — Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing.
I hadn’t seen Do the Right Thing since high school, when I was moderately obsessed with it. It had been back on my radar recently because it’s just been rereleased on DVD to celebrate its 20th anniversary (damn, I’m old). So, on the train ride home, I gave it a fresh gander, and, wonder of wonders, I spent most of those two hours thinking about West Side Story. It might just be coincidence and timing, but watching both movies in a single weekend was a striking experience. It’s quite amazing, really, how similar they truly are.
First, the obvious: Both are about race relations in New York City. For West Side Story, it’s the whites versus the Puerto Ricans. Thirty years later in Do the Right Thing, it’s the Italians versus the African Americans (with a Korean family thrown in for good measure). In both movies, the two cultures are sharing a neighborhood and struggling with their own separate identity and class issues. And in both movies, the two cultures come together, clash, separate, come together, clash, and separate, until finally tempers go from a simmer to a roiling boil and horrific tragedy ensues.
Second, the also-obvious: music plays a huge role in both films as well. This is obvious for West Side Story, since it’s a musical. But the songs in West Side Story do more than just provide the beat for some wicked cool ballet-infused street dancing — instead, they serve as the primary vehicle for the delivery of some of the most important elements of the characters involved.
Music so often seems to be the way singers or songwriters “talk” about the things they otherwise might struggle to express, and that’s certainly true for the Jets and the Sharks in WSS. When they aren’t singing, they’re all about posturing and pretending to be tough. But listen to the lyrics for “America,” sung on a rooftop by the Puerto Rican Sharks and their girlfriends, a song that alternately slaps and embraces both their new and their old countries, detailing their conflicted emotions regarding their lives in each place. (By the way, Moreno’s throatily-delivered line “Smoke on your pipe and put THAT in” still makes me laugh out loud. She’s so cool.)
And then, to balance that out, check out the lyrics for “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets song that is essentially a gallows humor tune from a group of boys just starting to enter adulthood after a lifetime spent with broken parents in broken homes, struggling to find their place in a world that seems to blame them for everything that’s wrong (as Doc says at one point, “When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!”). Both songs let us in — way in. Way inside what’s really going on for the players on this stage.
Music isn’t used in quite the same way in Do the Right Thing, but it’s still there, and still powerful. The primary tune for this film is “Fight the Power,” the Public Enemy song perpetually blasting from Radio Raheem’s boom box. That boom box is practically a character itself, really, traveling through the streets of the inner city, blasting “Power to the people, no delay!” and inciting off and on and off and on the same two feelings Raheem wears in gold on his knuckles: LOVE and HATE. That same boom box playing that same song also ends up being one of the initiating triggers of the violence at the end of the movie, giving it even more weight in terms of its importance to the story.
“Fight the Power” is a phrase repeated over and over in Chuck D’s song, and teamed up with the rhythmic clash and energizing engagement of the beats behind it, it serves as a rallying cry for the collective struggle of the characters in the film. It’s not a song about violence; it’s not about that kind of fighting. Instead it’s a song about “mental self-defensive fitness.” “People, people we are the same,” the song says, then reverses itself: “No we’re not the same, ’cause we don’t know the game. What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless. . . Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be.” How do two distinct groups of people coexist, especially when one group treats the other group like it’s either invisible or merely in the way and refuses to recognize they might have a positive contribution to make too? The song urges those who listen to it to MAKE people see those contributions. And the challenge, then — in both movies, really — lies in figuring out the best or most effective way to do that (a never-ending debate neatly summed up at the end of Do the Right Thing by the zooming-in of the camera on a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. shaking hands with Malcolm X).
I also wanted to point out the striking use of color in both films. The sets in West Side Story are quite deliberately colored, right down to the paint on the cars lining the streets. There’s a fascinating juxtaposition in that film of the bright primary colors and schoolyards of youth and the darker colors and switchblades of adulthood. And, of course, there’s heavy use of the color red, which might not be the most original foreshadowing technique of all time, but it’s still an effective one for sure.
In Do the Right Thing, colors also play a huge part. Scenes are saturated with reds, oranges, yellows, and other “hot” colors that make us instinctively feel the temperature of both the weather (it’s the hottest day of the year in the film) and the escalating emotions of the characters in the story. As the heat rises and the oranges intensify, so too do the tempers, until inevitably, the neighborhood quite literally catches on fire.
Now, in case the use of music and color for specific effect is too generic a comparison (after all, many movies do that sort of thing), I wanted to point out that I also saw sharp parallels between two of the films’ primary characters: Anita in WSS and Mookie in DtRT. Both characters are the even-tempered ones all through the pictures, the ones that seemed to walk with relative acceptance in both worlds. And in both cases, they end up triggering the final act of violence, after something terrible happens right in their face that makes it impossible for them to continue not to (re)act. For Anita, that event comes when she’s attacked and nearly sexually assaulted by Tony’s gang after walking into their territory to try to deliver a message from Maria to Tony. Terrified and enraged, her response is to pass on a lie instead of Maria’s actual message, and it’s that lie that gets Tony killed.
In DtRT, it’s Mookie, who spends the whole movie trying to keep the two sides from killing each other, only to succumb to a final straw and launch a garbage can through Sal’s window (while yelling the word from Raheem’s left hand, “HAAAAATE!”), the act that finally triggers a full-on riot in the streets.
(Oh, and also playing the part of major triggers in the escalation in violence in both films? Racist cops. Some things never change, sadly.)
I could probably continue with this review all damn day, but I’m sure this has already gone on way too long for most of you. Sorry about that! In any case, it was a pretty amazing experience watching both these movies together, not to mention an experience that has obviously weighed heavily on me ever since. If nothing else, it was pretty damn disheartening to discover that we’ve been dealing with the same issues in our neighborhoods for over 30 years with very little hope of permanent resolution. The cultures and races in the wars may change, but the wars themselves don’t appear to.
So, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen either of these two films, and you’re in the mood for something thoughtful, I heartily recommend this as a double-feature. If you have teenage kids, make ’em watch with you — maybe theirs will be the generation that finally figures this damn thing out.
And if you read all the way down to the bottom of this review, you get an A+ and my devotion for life. For realz.
Genre: Musical, Drama
Cast for WSS: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita ILOVEYOU! Moreno, George Chakiris
Cast for DtRT: Spike Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, John Turturro, Bill Nunn, Ruby Dee, Giancarlo Esposito