Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hamilton (2020)


Title: Hamilton
Release Date: July 3, 2020
Director: Thomas Kail
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | 5000 Broadway Productions | Nevis Productions | Old 320 Sycamore Pictures | RadicalMedia
Summary/Review:

Five years after first hearing the Broadway cast recording of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop history musical inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, I finally get to see what the performance actually looks like.  And I didn’t even have to pay $500 for a ticket!  This movie is made up of stage performances filmed over three shows in 2016 much like one of my all-time favorite Broadway-shows-become-movies, Camelot (1982). The high-quality film and steady-cam work enhances an already great stage production.

Since it seemed that most everyone I know was already watching this movie yesterday, I’m sure no one is waiting for my review.  Still, I do recommend watching it even if you’re skeptical about all the fuss. The story is somewhat loose with historical facts, but it needs to be recognized that this is a story for our times as much as it is history. The cast is predominately people of color who claim American history – all too often considered white history – as their own. Hamilton and Lafayette probably never considered themselves immigrants, for example, but in Hamilton they identify as such because the show is tying them into a longer story of the American experience.

Anyhow, there’s probably nothing more I can say about Hamilton that hasn’t already been said.  I like it, I love the music, I love the deeply human performances from the cast.

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending May 30


Running Tally of Podcast of the Week Appearances in 2020

Anthropocene Reviewed :: You’ll Never Walk Alone and Jerzy Dudek

John Green analyzes a show tune that has become a beloved soccer anthem, and the performance of a Polish goalkeeper in 2005.

Code Switch :: A Decade Of Watching Black People Die

The murders, the videos, the outrage, the hashtags – the pattern of Black people murdered by cops and vigilantes is unsettlingly familiar.  When will it move beyond a grim voyeurism towards actual justice?

The Last Archive :: The Invisible Lady

The story of a sideshow attraction in 1804 New York expands into a wider analysis of the invisibility of women in public life.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Makin’ Whoopee

The history of novelty toys, specifically the Whoopee Cushion, and why we find the sounds of farts funny.


Movie Review: Camelot (1982)


Title: Camelot
Release Date: September 26, 1982
Director: Marty Callner
Production Company: Home Box Office (HBO)
Summary/Review:

The revival of the Broadway musical Camelot played at the Winter Garden Theatre (just before it was infested by Cats) in 1981-1982 and this film for HBO is a taping of a live performance.  When I was a child, this was my introduction to the musical and Arthurian legend in general.  I later saw the 1967 film adaptation of Camelot which was a bit meh, and I attended a touring company performance in the 1990s.  I enjoyed that performance although it starred Robert Goulet as King Arthur which seemed a misuse of his vocal talents.

For me this 1982 version of Camelot remains the gold standard.  It stars Richard Harris as Arthur, and I’ve forever been a fan of Richard Harris since first watching this. I’m glad I was able to find it again on the library resource Hoopla. Harris brings humanity, gravitas, and humor to his role as Arthur.  Camelot reduces it’s source material (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) down to the essential love triangle among Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot.  Meg Bussert and Richard Muenz perform and sing terrifically as Guenevere, and Lancelot.  I’m also delighted by Barrie Ingham’s hilarious performance as Pellinore.

If you like Camelot, or you’ve never seen Camelot, you owe it to yourself to watch this version.

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending July 13


Hit Parade :: The History of Show Tunes and the Pop Charts

A broad history of Broadway tunes and cast albums making it to the top of the charts, whether as original cast recordings, covers, or even samples.  I learned a lot, such as the fact that Natalie Wood did not sing her own songs in West Side Story, and that Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita were concept albums before they were staged as shows.

StoryCorps :: A Danger to My Country

Stories of the “Lavender Scare” in the 1950s federal government, and the gay man who had to enforce it.


Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 10


BackStory :: Too Good to Be True

The American History guys discuss several of the myths of American history, looking for the kernels of truth among the flat-out fabrications.  Particularly interesting is the segment on the widely believed legends of Robert E. Lee that rarely stand up to historical scrutiny.

This American Life :: Five Women

A story that delves into the experiences of sexual misconduct from five women employed by the same man, which includes an exploration of their personal histories and how that affected their interactions.

Hub History :: Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968, with Ryan Walsh

An interview with Ryan Walsh, author of a new history book about Boston in 1968 through the lens of Van Morrison’s classic album Astral Weeks, inspired by Morrison’s time in Boston.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Hamilton

An exploration of sound design for a Broadway musical through the hit show Hamilton.

WBUR News :: ‘Get Our Voices Out’: Why 3 Students Will Walk Out To Protest Gun Violence

An interview with three Boston-area high school activists planning protests to reduce gun violence.