This week and last one of my favorite movie theaters in the whole world (but more specifically in the city of Chicago) The Music Box has been hosting the 70mm Festival, which has included a few wonderful revival screenings (you can read more about it here.) Last night’s film was West Side Story. If you have read this blog at all, you are probably aware that I love movies, and musicals, and Chicago nostalgia – so this event was pretty much designed for me.
First the nostalgia – The Music Box is a real old school theater, with only two screens, obviously non-digital projection (hence the festival), and even an occasional organ player between showings. There is even a curtain that rises before the show (or halfway through the overture in the case of West Side Story last night). The older seats might mean that you really resent a tall person who sits directly in front of you, but the atmosphere as whole makes going to a movie really feel like an event, which is saying something considering how often I go to the movies.
And it was such a joy to get to see West Side Story in all its big screen glory. I have seen this movie too many times to count, it’s one of my all-time favorite musicals, and as a child I choreographed many a routine to “Cool” and the “Gym Mambo” – because you know I knew better than Jerome Robbins, which is of course a joke, because no one knew better than Jerome Robbins. So what did I gain from last night’s viewing that I couldn’t get from watching my copy of the DVD? A few things:
1. I had to watch the whole thing.
I routinely (like once a year) have a craving to watch West Side Story, but I never want to watch the Rumble or the scene where the Jets attack Anita (my distaste for violence extends even to stylized dance violence I guess.) But I was reintroduced to the brilliance of those troubling sequences last night. And they even included the intermission so I got to hear the whole score.
2. I got indulge my love for background scouring
When I go to plays my favorite thing to do is scan the background actors during a speech or solo, the people who remain completely engaged quickly become my favorite actors. It’s harder to play this game in a film, when the background actors are generally kept out of frame, but in a big sweeping musical like this there are plenty of opportunities. Check out the random kids (I think?) in the background of the dance at the gym. Or that man in the green blazer who can’t dance – how had I missed them before?
3. It felt, well, theatrical
I took a class on the musicology and history of Broadway musicals my last quarter of college, and my professor gave a long speech about how the use of dance as storytelling that Robbins had pioneered on the stage didn’t translate to film. That it was hard to take dancing gangs seriously when you see them dancing down actual streets, instead of the already artificial world of the stage. At the time I think I understood what she meant, we had all just come in from watching the movie on our tiny laptop screens, and the snapping and pirouettes did seem a little hokey. But seeing it up on the big screen felt much more like seeing it on a stage, and it was easier to see the stylized world not a flaw of the film, but as a stylistic choice. I mean there are never any other people on the streets, they clearly aren’t meant to be realistic.
4. I got to listen to this song on an excellent sound system: