Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marlon Brando each cracked open the ossified '50s, setting in motion the rapid evolution of youth culture into popular culture. But the landmark event in that transformation? West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957, hit movie theaters in 1961, and skillfully co-opted the attitude and fashion of the next generation into a mainstream hit. It’s difficult to find fault with its bravura inspiration, however, and impossible to quibble with its stunning execution, when the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, Rita Moreno, Natalie Wood and “Wild Bill” Shakespeare are involved.
Sixty years later, West Side Story remains one of the greatest musicals ever made, persuasively integrating street-level realism into a genre defined by (and loved for) its embrace of fantasy. It succeeds in being flamboyantly entertaining without trivializing the weighty issues and ideas at the core of the story: immigration, xenophobia, identity, self-expression, love and violence. Transporting and wrenching, timeless and universal, West Side Story is still a breathtaking accomplishment.
BAMPFA, in cahoots with Berkeley Rep and the Downtown Berkeley Association, shows West Side Story on its outdoor screen on Addison Street (at Oxford) this Saturday, July 29 at 7:30pm. (All of Us, a trio, warms up the arriving crowd with songs from the soundtrack beginning at 7pm. They might consider a rendition of Springsteen’s "Jungleland," which feels inspired in part by West Side Story.) In the dusk, with the proper breeze, you might detect the veiled threats that youth culture once aimed at the mainstream.