FILM OF THE WEEK
There must be people waiting breathlessly for Stephen Spielberg’s forthcoming remake of West Side Story (1961), but I’m not among them. The trailer looks terrible. The original West Side Story (1961) is a piece of film history, of course, but it is still vivid and alive.
Its concerns – youth, tribalism, gangs, family, the cluelessness of authority, the dangers of love – are perennially in the news. The weird jazz lingo of the script and some of the songs, which was, in any case, largely invented, now sets the film in a time and place as imaginary as Shakespeare’s Verona. The plot, freely adapted from Romeo & Juliet, floats free too, a fact partially explained by the show’s long, painful genesis.
When choreographer Jerome Robbins first approached composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents, in 1947, he was planning East Side Story, a contemporary forbidden-love musical about Irish Catholics clashing with Jewish newcomers. The Puerto Ricans came later, plucked from headlines about juvenile delinquency, just as the prodigy Stephen Sondheim was brought in to write the lyrics: the show would be called West Side Story. Nobody wanted to put up the money (too grim, too controversial) but it was a Broadway smash.
Hollywood was determined to make a movie, not adapt a stage show. Robbins, who had never worked in film, was paired with Robert Wise, who had edited Citizen Kane. He saved the musical when it ran disastrously late: people kept getting injured in the choreographer’s reckless dance/fight sequences. The big songs were shifted about. The size of the orchestra was tripled, to Bernstein’s horror. NYC locations were used for the big fights. The film would look radical: super-saturated colour and costumes; violently expressive editing, dictated by the music; Super Panavision 70.
Casting was crucial. Tony, the Polish-American hero, played by a handsome TV actor called Richard Beymer, could have been Elvis Presley, Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford. Warren Beatty was also considered and rejected, but Wise picked his then-girlfriend, Natalie Wood, as innocent Maria.
Pauline Kael hated the film – “frenzied hokum” – and critics have been sniffy about the occasional naiveté of the script. And it is true that the lead couple are somewhat overpowered by the supporting cast, especially firecracker Rita Moreno – an actual Puerto Rican – as Anita, Maria’ s confidante and girlfriend of her doomed brother. Neither Beymer nor Wood sang: poor Natalie was led to believe that her vocals were going to be used, but the music department had already replaced her with the inevitable Marni Nixon. Only in the final reprise of ‘Somewhere’, as Tony dies, do we hear a fragment of Wood’s singing: its technical inadequacy only enhances the heartbreak of the scene.
And yet, for all its flaws, it is a wonderful film: steeped in colour, dynamic, with irresistible tunes and rhythms and some of the wittiest, most musical words you can imagine. The love story is unashamedly romantic, and brilliantly realised in film. As the couple first glimpse each other across the dance floor, everything else disappears into abstraction and irrelevance. I suspect Shakespeare would have adored the magic of cinema, in which a whole army is put to work so two actors – not the best in the world – can conjure up moments of unforgettable emotional intimacy. West Side Story is on Sunday (18/7) at 13:50 on BBC2.
On Tuesday (20/7) at 23:40, Film4 has Snowpiercer (2013). In a post-apocalyptic world, only a few souls have survived, living aboard a conflict-racked train that permanently travels around the world. By Bong Joon Ho of Parasite fame, with Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Tilda Swinton as a monstrous politician.
On Wednesday (21/7) at 02:15, Film4 has The Guilty (2018). Danish drama about a police call-handler trying to help a woman he believes has been kidnapped: effectively one actor, on one set, and extremely intense. Shown by CFS in November last year.
On Thursday (22/7) at 23:15, Film4 has Wings of Desire (1987). Powerful and poetic Wim Wenders fantasy-romance about an angel (brilliant Bruno Ganz) who falls in love with a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) and desires to become mortal.
Tomorrow (17/7) at 00:05, BBC2 has Goldstone (2016). Aboriginal detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) arrives at an outback town to investigate a routine crime and runs into a wall of suspicion and hostility. Best Australian film of that year, according to the Guardian. At 02:35, Horror Channel has The Reef (2010). Still in Australia, a great white shark terrifies the crew of a capsized yacht off the Barrier Reef. I’m sticking with W-S-M. No sharks there. No sea either.
On Tuesday (20/7) at 14:50, BBC2 has The Man in the White Suit (1951). Classic Ealing satire. Alec Guinness invents an indestructible fabric, falling foul of his mill-owner bosses and the unions because clothes that last for ever are a bad business model. Sponsored by Primark.
Other modern films of interest
Lots of documentaries this week. Tomorrow (17/7) at 00:55, Sky Arts has Manson: Music from an Unsound Mind (2019). Workmanlike film about Charles Manson, crazed leader of the murdering Californian “Family”, concentrating on his musical ambitions and connections, including with Dennis Wilson, sometime drummer with the Beach Boys. At 22:00, BBC2 has Liam Gallagher: As It Was (2019). The rise, fall and commercial resurrection of the all-singing, all-drinking, all-snorting, all-scrapping Oasis brother.
On Sunday (18/7) at 13:30, Sky Arts has Come Together: The Rise of the Festival (2018). Newport, Monterey, Woodstock, Isle of Wight, and so on through to the present day. Hey, Wychwood is coming back! Just not until next June. At 22:00, BBC4 has Williams: Formula 1 in the Blood (2017). Biography of Frank Williams, a one-time travelling salesman who built a legendary motor racing team, surviving a crippling car accident on the way home from a race.
On Monday (19/7) at 01:35, Film4 has Labor Day (2013). Kate Winslet plays a reclusive mother of a 13-year-old boy (Gattlin Griffith) who encourages her to invite into her home a scary runaway (Josh Brolin). An over-ripe melodrama from Jason Reitman, whose best film was Juno (2007).
On Wednesday (21/7) at 22:00, BBC4 has Hillsong Church: God Goes Viral (2021). New Storyville documentary about the Australian megachurch, which apparently attracts 150,000 young worshippers a week in 30 countries to its showbiz-style services. Scandal-ridden throughout its history, it boasts Australian PM Scott Morrison as its most prominent and irksome wowser.
On Thursday (22/7) at 02:00, Sky Arts has Suburban Steps to Rockland: The Story of The Ealing Club (2017). Documentary portrait of the pioneering London rhythm and blues venue, which opened in 1962 and hosted the Rolling Stones, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and many other British rock giants and/or cultural appropriators.
On Friday (23/7) at 23:30, BBC2 has Killing Escobar (1968). A scary 78-year-old Scottish mercenary reminisces about a 1989 plot to kill the Bolivian cocaine baron Pablo Escobar at the behest of another druglord. He failed, but it’s hard to care either way.
Tomorrow (17/7) at 23:00, BBC1 has Young Guns (1988). Unashamedly commercial Western packed with the male pin-ups of the day, including Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips and many more.
On Monday (19/7) at 12:00, Talking Pictures has The History of Mr. Polly (1949). John Mills as H. G. Wells’s somewhat aimless comic hero, escaping from the tedium of the Edwardian drapery trade via a failed suicide bid.
On Tuesday (20/7) at 01:25, Film4 has The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983). A key British film of the Thatcher era, and a cinematic debut for both writer Ian McEwan and director Richard Eyre, with Jonathan Pryce as an unscrupulous TV journalist. In passing, convinced many of us that the then-popular pub meal of the title was invented by the Milk Marketing Board to sell mousetrap cheese.
On Wednesday (21/7) at 14:45, BBC2 has School for Scoundrels (1960). Ian Carmichael and Terry-Thomas in a flimsy comedy based on the books of the humorist Stephen Potter, who introduced the term “gamesmanship” – genteel cheating in sport and life – into popular parlance.
On Thursday (22/7) at 20:00, BBC4 has Cold Comfort Farm (1995). BBC film of the barking Stella Gibbons romp, directed by John Schlesinger from a script by Malcolm Bradbury, with a tremendous cast including Kate Beckinsale, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Fry, Rufus Sewell, Ian McKellen and many more. Orphaned Flora (Beckinsale) goes to live with relatives at grim Cold Comfort Farm, where there is something nasty in the woodshed.
Laurel and Hardy
This week’s Laurel and Hardy selection on Talking Pictures gets off to a great start tomorrow morning at 09:35 with Below Zero (1930), one of their best shorts, in which they play struggling street musicians. At 16:00 there is one of their better features, Our Relations (1936). They have dual roles, playing cousins, with inevitably confusing results. At 17:30, in another short, Twice Two (1933), they play dual roles again, as both their regular characters and, in drag, their twin sisters: each star is married to the other’s sister. A lot of fun.
Sadly, that cannot be said of Sunday afternoon’s feature, The Bohemian Girl (1936), at 16:25. It was the last of their features based on an operetta and it did not help that the suspicious death of leading lady Thelma Todd occurred before the release of the film, meaning sequences had to be reshot without her. The film would have benefited from more of Laurel and Hardy and less of the supporting cast. Fortunately, this is preceded at 16:00 by The Battle of the Century (1927), a silent short with the classic pie fight climax.
Storm in teacup shocker
Please forgive the autobiographical intrusion, but I (JM) have left the committee of Cheltenham Film Society, where I was PR and webmaster. In future I intend to put my energies into promoting cinema culture to all Cheltonians, including newcomers to the town. I favour being able talk to anyone about a film, knowing that they’ll be able to buy a ticket and see it, rather than having to tell them that it can only be seen by members of an organisation that tends to close its doors by the beginning of each September. This might have been a good time to consider the future shape of the society, but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that.
I hope you have enjoyed this newsletter, which Stephen and I have produced every week for the last 14 months. Now that the lockdown seems to be coming to an end, it is perhaps time for a change. I intend to continue producing a newsletter (and a website) about film in the Cheltenham and north Gloucestershire area, but data protection law means I should not use the email address list that people signed up to through the Cheltenham Film Society website. I due course I will provide a link so you can join my new list and receive the newsletter, if you would like to. In the meantime, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.