A warning: there is no way I can’t make this review incredibly biased. I personally love this film and have for a long time. It’s one of my favorite musicals, and while I understand the movie has some drawbacks, I think for the most part it’s a good screen adaptation. Some reasonable complaints include that it’s silly and a bit ridiculous, but it tries very hard to be serious and dramatic, and if you give it chance, you might just be able to see all of these aspects at once.
The story is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet transferred into 1950’s New York City. Instead of two feuding families, you have two rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks. Tony (Richard Beymer) has been out of the Jets for some time, but when his best friend and leader of the Jets Riff (Russ Tamblyn) asks him to come back for one last “rumble” against the Sharks, he can’t refuse. Complicating matters is Maria (Natalie Wood), a beautiful girl he encounters at the dance. They fall in love at first sight, but Maria happens to be the sister of the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (George Chakiris), which turns their innocent attraction into forbidden love. They try to stop the rivalry between the gangs, but it only ends up escalating further.
The film deals with a lot of heavy issues for a fifties type musical: mainly prejudice and racism. Though it has them among kids dancing around and fighting on a playground, they’re still pretty effectively portrayed because they are so straightforward. For all of the complexities of racism, the film breaks in down into a matter of us and them, and it gets these kids into a world of trouble. It also deals with a lot of youth issues that started to plague the country around this time; the Jets freely admit they are juvenile delinquents that just want attention in “Gee Officer Krupke.” The rebellion against authority is justified in a way though, as the cops are more interested in helping the Jets than the Sharks as they’re white. Though this isn’t the reason they object, the authorities in this movie are highly questionable and parents are largely absent. The Sharks on the other hand, are more concerned about the prejudice they encounter as immigrants and the elusiveness of the American Dream, memorably portrayed in “America.”
The dialogue in this film is very stylized, and can be terribly corny a lot of the time. My eyes always twitch a bit during Maria and Tony’s first exchange; it’s way too sappy when it should be more sincere. A lot of it can be fun though, even if overall it’s pretty uneven. The lyrics are pretty clever in the way they avoid swearing though; I gotta hand it to Sondheim on that one. He must have had his work cut out for him.
The main achievement of this film though is unquestionably the dancing and the choreography. It’s incredible impressive. One of my favorite things about the dancing is the dance-fighting; it’s all very stylized punching, chasing, and even stabbing and shooting that is all perfectly choreographed. It’s obviously dancing, which fits right into the characterization. They’re all kids playing at being gangsters, and then before they can back off it gets way too out of hand. By the same token, the dancing is unexpectedly violent. The separate gangs are all perfectly coordinated within their groups, the choreography, as well as the musical style, set them apart, most clearly seen in “Mambo” and “Prologue.” Not every number is dance intensive, but the majority of them are and it fills the film with an intense youthful energy.
The choreography also works very well cinematically. The best example of this is the number “Cool,” which occurs after the major bloodshed of the rumble and is about the Jets trying to keep it together. It is set in parking garage, and the ceiling is very low which gives an incredibly cramped feeling, visually suggesting the pressure the kids are under. Individual gang members will break off from the group at the beginning of the number, but they are all in perfect sync by the end of the number, signifying that they have solidified their position in the gang and are ready to go out again and fight the Sharks. The new leader can be seen clapping to the music in the bottom corner of the frame at one point like he is directing them. My favorite part is at the end though, after they’ve exited the garage. As a unit, they all look up where a Shark was seen before, but the camera is positioned there so it’s like they’re looking straight at the audience. It’s shot at a high angle, so we are looking down on them, and it makes them look powerless. However, there’s such defiance on all of their faces, completed when Action “shoots” the camera/Shark with his finger, that they really seem like they’ve got themselves together. The whole sequence is a pressure cooker, but it is quietly diffused at the end. It’s a brilliant number, and such analysis could surely be applied to many others in the picture.
As much as I hate to admit it, the film suffers a bit from the casting of its two main leads. Even without much background knowledge of the film, it’s clear to see that Natalie Wood was stuffed in there so the film could have a big name. While she does her best, and is especially good at portraying Maria’s innocence at the beginning of the film, she’s obviously not Puerto Rican and also can’t sing (Marni Nixon dubs her singing) or dance up to the standards of the rest of the cast. Of course, the only exception to that is Richard Beymer who also can’t sing (Jim Bryant does his) or dance up to the standards of the rest of the cast. As far as I can tell, he wasn’t too famous at the time either so I can’t figure out why they picked him. I actually don’t mind him in the role personally, but objectively I have to admit it’s a bit of strange casting. The result is that the gangs start to run away with the show a bit, but come to think of it that sort of plays into the main themes of the film. Another complaint is the film is slightly imbalanced. In general, the music is just all around better in the first half as opposed to the second half. Also, we get to know the Jets way better than the Sharks, which is a shame because I bet they are equally fascinating.
I’m not going to pretend that West Side Story doesn’t have its faults and drawbacks, but it’s a very ambitious musical and the effort to bring it to the big screen largely paid off. For once, the Academy and I seem to agree, as West Side Story was awarded ten out of its eleven Oscar nominations, winning picture, director, supporting actor for Chakiris, supporting actress for Moreno (who I criminally haven’t mentioned, read Ebert’s review that I linked to at the bottom), color cinematography, color art direction, color costume design, sound, editing, and music. The only one it lost was adapted screenplay, which I somewhat understand as the dialogue is so ridiculous at points. I have only touched on some of the things that make this movie wonderful; I focused on more of the visual aspects than the musical ones, but entire books could be (and probably have been) written on Bernstein’s phenomenal and innovative score. West Side Story is one of my favorite movies, and I couldn’t pick a better film from 1961.
“Maria! I’ve just met a girl named Maria…”
Long story short: 3.5/4
For Further Reading: