Making the Grades
Life is tough on the streets of New York City's west side. Crowded with immigrants, the youthful residents believe survival in the concrete jungle means joining up with your own kind and staking a claim for your own piece of pavement. At present, two groups are vying for "King of the Heap" status: the Jets, primarily made up of Caucasian males, and the Sharks, encompassing the Puerto Rican community.
Itchin' for action, the high flying Jets commander Riff (Russ Tamblyn) decides to challenge the Sharks' big fish Bernardo (George Chakiris) to a rumble. To increase his winning odds, Riff tries to enlist the support of Tony (Richard Beymer), the gang's former leader. Newly employed at Doc's Store, Tony seems to have lost interest in street-corner skirmishes, and is looking for a better "something, somewhere." The only commitment Riff can get out of him is a promise to attend the dance where the ultimatum is to be made.
Meanwhile, in the Spanish speaking camp, Bernardo set out for the dance with plans to introduce his recently arrived sister Maria (Natalie Wood) to her new American home. But his social agenda is quickly discarded as the plans for a war council take priority. While the protective older brother is distracted, Maria happens to catch sight of the man of her dreams. And he seems to think she might be that special something he's been looking for too. Oblivious to the obvious objections, Maria and Tony fall in love.
Winner of ten Academy Awards, West Side Story is one of the motion picture industry's greatest triumphs. Adapted from the Broadway musical, the film brings both drama and dancing to the big screen, and boasts a musical score that will be familiar to most viewers.
Although it contains a few mild profanities, some slightly sensual dancing and the implied sexual relationship of an unmarried couple, parents' biggest concerns will be the depiction of violence. Along with the expected intimidating, wrestling and insult slinging that generally accompany bullying, the movie also includes scenes of stabbings and shootings. Thanks to the highly stylized nature of the choreographed fight sequences and the movie's propensity to break into song, much of this tension is defused. (It is really hard to take a hoodlum seriously while he is executing ballet-like modern dance steps.)
Made in 1961, some of the artistic interpretation may appear dated. However, if you can put aside contemporary society's taste for gritty realism, you will find a story that transcends time. Inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (right down to the balcony scene which, in this case, takes place on fire escape ladders), this modernized version of the star-crossed lovers replaces feuding families with rival gangs. And just as in the Bard's day, the consequences for hate and prejudice are always tragic.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about West Side Story.
The Puerto Ricans quip, “Life is alright in America, if you’re all white in America.” Why do you think they feel this way? Can anything be done to change racial prejudice?
In the lyrics of a song, Maria defends her feelings for Tony by claiming, “When love comes so strong, there is no right or wrong.” Do you agree that logic cannot govern the affairs of the heart? Some of the gang members use a similar argument to justify their hate. What price did they pay for this excuse?