Romeo and Juliet on the streets of New York (2 hr 34 min)
Unrated. IMDB suggests PG for “stylized violence, language, sensuality, and some smoking.” Intense—if balletic— violence, including knife combat, but the stabbings and shootings show no blood. Race hate, ethnic slurs (“spic”, “wop”, “polack”) and exaggerated Hispanic accents. A stylized near-gang rape. A character asserts that his parents have marijuana but won’t let him have any. Sideswipes about “streetwalking” and differentiation from gender norms. Some actual, mostly implied profanity (“buggin’”, “Krup you!”). As in Shakespeare, unrealistic expectations about love held by shallow, stupid teenagers end up getting people killed.
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Might want to hold off the Romeo and Juliet movie adaptations as yet. For older kids a next step could be Titanic. Musical fans can seek out more Sondheim (Into the Woods could be next), but this is also a good stepping stone towards opera or ballet.
Songs to Download
“Gee Officer Krupke”
It's just our bringin' up-ke that gets us out of hand
Even in 1961 West Side Story was kind of a hard sell. We’re expected to believe that these are cool, tough street kids who also dance and sing. But the muscular urgency of Jerome Robbins’ choreography, as it sharply punctuates the bleating of Leonard Bernstein’s jagged and dissonant score, almost dares you to make fun or to look away. The entire movie bristles with energy, from the language (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) to the performances (with Oscars for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris) to the visuals (more Oscars for Cinematography, Costumes, Art Direction, and Editing). Natalie Wood (Maria) and Richard Beymer (Tony) both wear the emotions of their characters on the surface of their skin,* heightening the intensity of the melodrama. You can practically feel the movie’s need to end in a collective stunned silence. Take this as an opportunity to check in about your kids’ understanding about intersections of race and fear and violence, perhaps in the context of the civil rights era in which the film was made. Oh and go ahead and start the movie’s overture before the whole family has settled down to watch. It’s going to be a long night ahead, and there could very well be tears at the end of it. —
*Wood and Beymer’s lack of chemistry paradoxically works for the film, underscoring the innocence of Maria and Tony’s love.