Many of my favorite movies have that one scene that I simply have to watch. I’m sure you have them to. When you’re flipping through TV channels and you come across a movie that you love, you’ll sit and watch it until that one scene plays and then you’ll feel free to change the channel to something else. For me and Jurassic Park, it’s the T-Rex attack, or inAliens it’s Ripley in the Power Loader (unless Aliens is showing on AMC, where they split the film’s finale in two so they can air 5 minutes of commercials right smack in the middle), or the Diva’s song in The Fifth Element. This past week I was channel surfing and came across one of my all-time favorite musicals on Turner Classic, West Side Story, and I lucked out because it was right before the start of my favorite scene, the one I just have to watch.
West Side Story is full of many memorable musical numbers, from “I Feel Pretty” to “Tonight” to “Gee, Officer Krupke” to “Somewhere”, but for me there’s no sequence better than “America.” The rooftop number, which occurs halfway through act 1, is the most electric and energetic of the film, and it’s always the first song that pops to mind when I think of West Side Story. It’s a tour de force song for Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita, and she dominates the number with her sassy, smart attitude, not to mention her singing and dancing talent. George Chakiris certainly holds his own as Bernardo, but it’s Moreno who steals the show. Add to that the brilliant music by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the choreography and direction by Jerome Robbins and you’ve got, for me, the highlight of the film.
But beyond simply being a great musical number with excellent singing and dancing, “America” does what all good songs in musicals should do: it gives us something more. In the original stage version, “America” is sung between Anita and one of the other Puerto Rican women, and in it Anita simply praises America while trashing Puerto Rico. In the film version, however, lyrics and performers have been changed, and the result is much sharper, much more topical, and a song that gives us a glimpse into the lives of these immigrants in a way that a non-musical drama would be hard pressed to convey, particularly with as much humor and heart as West Side Story manages.
What struck me in my most recent viewing was how many of the issues brought up by Bernardo in his attempts to poke holes in Anita’s rosy view of America are still prevalent in the US of 2015, particularly in light of recent political discourse. Donald Trump’s characterization of immigrants from Mexico and South America as all being rapists and criminals, and the discussion his statements have sparked, sound right at home in the experiences of Bernardo and other Puerto Rican immigrants from West Side Story. The America Anita sings of is an idealized vision, full of the well-advertised “American Dream” with which we’re all familiar, which she holds onto despite being fully aware of Bernardo’s point of view, of the reality immigrants face. The song is full of contrasting views: the promise of prosperity and the reality of poverty, the vision of open doors when doors slam in your face because of your skin color or accent, freedom to chase your dreams while the only options available are the equivalent of shining shoes, skyscrapers and Cadillacs juxtaposed with twelve people crammed in one room. Here we are 54 years later, and things have changed remarkably little.
Even setting aside politics, however, “America” is still a knock-out number. I’m a particularly big fan of the cinematography of the scene. I love the way the camera moves around to unexpected angles, and the way it complements the choreography. The ground-level shot with the feet of bystanders shuffling around between the audience and the performance gives the scene an extra dose of reality, as though we’re observing real happenings instead of a staged scene, despite the fact that it’s a musical. But the director still isn’t afraid to pull the camera up to a crane shot to take advantage of the larger movements of the dance, going from the intimacy of film to the grandeur of Broadway in the same number. There are plenty of scenes I love in West Side Story, but I simply can’t flip past it on TV until I’ve seen “America”.
What do you think? Do you have scenes that you have to watch through when you catch a film on TV? What movies do you always take time to watch when they’re on TV? What’s your favorite number in West Side Story? How awesome is Rita Moreno? Are you ever surprised by how a film that’s decades old can suddenly feel very relevant to today’s world? (Should I try to bring back Friday Favorites? If so, do you have any ideas for topics or movies I could cover?) Thanks for reading, and drop me a line in the comments!