From the dramatic retelling of Romeo and Juliet in West Side Story to adolescent competition and tumult of a harsh urban environment in You Got Served to the subtext of intensely passionate relationships in Hero to the Miami Vice setting of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, the pulse of each story resounds in the choreographed body in motion (dancing or performing basic pedestrian movement) and the constantly shifting view of the camera. Each of these four movies has their own distinct movement style yet shares similarities in the fact that each occurs in a highly specific environment bearing cultural significance. The narrative structure of each varies, but all reveal every character’s passion and vulnerability – which often collide for the demise or victory of the individual, community.
Taking on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a challenge for any director. Shakespeare’s works stand the test of time. In the lifetime of the work, many attempts to reinterpret or reinvent it have been made. The unsuccessful efforts simply rely on Shakespeare’s words to redeem the venture, while the more successful projects extract nuances of each character for relevance in contemporary society. The Academy Award-winning West Side Story, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, resituated the adolescent romance in the urban warfare of the Bronx between immigrant Puerto Ricans and the less recently immigrated European American youth. Drawing on the cultural issues these New Yorkers faced, West Side Story used song and dance to interpret romance, culture wars of race, class and gender. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet investigates the excesses of Miami society and the socio-economic domination of the Montague and Capulet families that results in the same fiercely loyal street fights as West Side Story but on opposite end of the economic spectrum.
West Side Story uses highly choreographed song and dance numbers that follow the generic structure of most musicals. Robbins’ choreography manages to create a hybrid of social dancing, concert dance, gymnastics, and folk dancing traditions that distinguishes it from other movie musicals of its time. The movement style is sharp and precise, highly choreographed. Relying on balletic ease of line and suspension, Robbins’ choreography also highlights the male adolescent body in flight. The most sensational numbers feature a rousing male chorus indulging in the affirmation of virility and daring. Playful but constant competition and one-upping become part of the movement. The pulse of West Side Story is quickly defined by the snapping of fingers by the Jets and the Sharks, and is recurrent through the course of the movie. Although strong, the heartbeat of this movie is subtle. It bursts with the flying acrobatics of the boys as they patrol the streets and becomes a sweet cadence when they join their female counterparts for flirtation. The rhythm is predictable as the soundtrack offers clear indication when transitioning in and out of song and dance segments. Because of this predictability, the beating pulse of the storyline is not as dramatic as it could be.
Luhrmann’s presentation of Romeo and Juliet is quite dramatic, because while it is not a written as a musical it has a constant rush of movement and physicality offering the entrancement similar to that of a musical. The powerful sweep of color in the torrid Miami climate accompanies the devil-may-care attitudes demonstrated in the lifestyles of the young Montague and Capulet men. The camera acts as a bird in flight rushing to the latest scene of passion and angst. The constant shifting of the camera drags the viewer along. The sharp cuts, accentuated by the fully designed setting of each scene from the priest’s funky greenhouse to the Juliet’s ivory tower bedroom, prevent the film’s pulse from becoming steady or predictable. Despite the absence of song and dance numbers, Luhrmann’s spectacle creates a much more physical performance than does Robbin’s neatly arranged sequences of movement in West Side Story. The harsh physicality of men fighting on the beach or recklessly speeding down the streets of Miami in their muscle cars with the sexual energy of boisterous Miami nightlife is quite believable. The viewer has less disbelief to suspend than in West Side Story.
Chris Stokes’ You Got Served features competing groups of boys fighting for their place in a harsh urban landscape (like West Side Story). However, in this conflict, dance becomes the cause/effect of each relational drama. Dancing defines each group’s standing in their subculture, and with each victory or defeat becomes the means for mediating challenge. Each dance number offers highly personal revelations of characters as they battle for redemption. They struggle as both individuals and members of a group, seeking validation of their place in the group and the position of the group in society. Whereas the dividing line in West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet focused solely on groups, the Jets and the Sharks, the Montagues and the Capulets. Once an individual began pursuing his or her own ambitions, especially when going outside the protective family circle, the infrastructure broke down. Stokes’ narrative constantly returned to the dance floor for updates in the progression of the plot. The site for each dancing battle was the same, with the same official moderating the event. This continuity of environment for dance grounded the flimsy storyline. The pulse of hip hop music and movement drives this movie; it would seem that the overall rhythm and pattern of the narrative would easily regulate itself. However, the drastic transition from dance floor to daily activities created a hot/cold effect. The viewer constantly must make their own adjustment to the careless shifts in backdrop so that tempering the transitions overtakes much of the movie.
In Hero, the breathtaking aerial martial arts impress the viewer with sheer velocity and momentum. Without relying on the rush of these choreographed fight scenes, the constant flight of the camera whisks the viewer through each change in setting from the cool granite courtyard slick with rain to the shifting hills of a desert to a fiery tree shrouded knoll. The costuming aids in this constant thrust of movement and action as their draping robes billow in the wind to elongate the line of the body in motion. Telling the same story in multiple ways, the viewer has the opportunity to revisit each site to fully appreciate the rush of water or wind in nature, and the powerfully controlled performances of physical mastery by each actor. The note of physicality is similar that of Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. Both films never rest. The camera edits pull and pushes the viewer through the plot of the moving, never leaving the viewer behind in a tangled plot but never allowing the viewer to gain a strong sense of what might be coming next. This creates a strongly defined pulse that saturates both films with depth, continuity, and excitement.
West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet, and Hero all bear the refrain of religion from the totems of crucifixes and shrines echoing Catholic allegiance to the contemplative meditation of Eastern philosophy in the somber pursuit of resolution. You Got Served operates religiously through the devotion to dance. The means for redemption and victory lie in the portrayal of dancing, each person finding revelation as move through the rite of dance in competition and practice. Each film operates within a highly specific and harsh environment real or created. Whether completely historically accurate, each film deals with concrete issues in the history of each culture they inhabit from the drug dealing streets of a city to the constant vigilance of a community under siege. The power of the human body in motion whether performing in the exuberance of hip hop or the controlled nuance of martial arts and ballet allows these films to create a living, breathing story that rides a pulsing heartbeat of desperation and survival.