[Film Review] West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story poster

Title: West Side Story
Year: 1961
Country: USA
Language: English, Spanish
Genre: Musical, Drama, Crime
Directors:
Robert Wise
Jerome Robbins
Writers:
Ernest Lehman
Arthur Laurents
Jerome Robbins
William Shakespeare
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Cast:
Natalie Wood
Richard Beymer
Rita Moreno
George Chakiris
Russ Tamblyn
Simon Oakland
Ned Glass
Eliot Feld
Gina Trikonis
Tucker Smith
David Winters
Susan Oakes
William Bramley
Rating: 7.7/10

Open a time capsule and watch this 10-Oscar winner in 1961 (including BEST PICTURE), a Rome-and-Juliet inspired musical adaption (originally a Broadway play by Leonard Bernstein) under the milieu of the turf war between two youth gangs, The Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants) vs. The Jets (local white trashes) in NYC, Maria (Wood) is the younger sister of The Sharks’ leader Bernardo (Chakiris), she and Tony (Beymer) are drawn to each other from the very first sight in a dancing room, but Tony is the best of Riff (Tamblyn), the head of The Jets gang. In a single-combat by which two rivalries want to settle all the scores once and for all, Maria asks Tony to stop the rumble but the enmity cannot be quenched and Tony’s interference only makes things worse, there will be blood shedding and the hostility widens. It’s Romeo and Juliet, so don’t expect there will be a happy ending.

What is more striking is that WEST SIDE STORIES is a paragon of blending top-notch choreography and singing renditions with the heightened tension in its narrative, compared with HELLO, DOLLY! (1969), it is a much more potent film, in a sense that its impact is not purely from the synchronized visual stunt or mellifluous voices, it is a film at the very first place, musical is the form to amplify the emotion of the story, that’s why it excels HELLO, DOLLY! in my opinion, the latter is an extravagant party with well-crafted entertainment. In WEST SIDE STORIES, its soundtrack is one of the best successful album in USA for all-time, while going with the test of time, it is dulcet, catchy but also a tad behind the times for the ears of our generation. But the difference between the live play and the film version is they can dub the voice for the latter, Natalie Wood doesn’t need to be trained as a soprano, and it hardly affect one’s attention to empathy her rejoicing or grief with well-calculated lip-syncing.

Both Tony and Maria are presented in a conventional way that unfortunately cramps Beymer and Wood’s performances, only in the final act, Wood finally gets the chance to unleash her glistening rage and grab the limelight, hones up the dramatic climax with her final roar and condemnation. Indeed it is Chakiris and Moreno (plays Anita, Bernardo’s wife) who won two Oscars and it was a rare achievement for non-white actors to win acting statues at then, Chakiris is a slick dancer and competent singer himself, it is more like a trophy for his personal allure and showmanship than his acting skill, which would be repeated by Joel Grey in CABARET (1972). Moreno is the one who really rides both the choreography and the hard-bitten drama here, her latin-gene gifts her fiery passion and she is the first one willing to accept Maria and Tony’s love story, and she is not driven by pure hatred even after the ensuing tragedy blindsides her life, her ideals are to bury the hatchet and discard all the animosity because American belongs to everyone, not one racial, but every and each citizen. In the most intense scenes when Anita encounters the Jets in Doc’s store, during the violent gang-rape stimulating dance number, she embodies not as a screeching victim, but a stern warrior, she contends with piercing resolution to thaw the deep cleavage rooted in those hoodlums’ mindset, at least she has tried. This is a worthy victory for her.

WEST SIDE STORY is a one-of-a-kind gem of its genre, directors Jerome Robbins (who was fired owing to that his multiple shooting of every scene was be too pricey for its budget) and Robert Wise (substituted Robbins in the director chair and who would bring us another musical classic THE SOUND OF MUSIC 1965) do make wonders and concoct this movie-cum-Broadway hybrid with an almost peerless upshot, a marvelous achievement in spite of the thorny multitasking of acting and entertaining.

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One thought on “[Film Review] West Side Story (1961)

  1. Pingback: [Last Film I Watched] Gypsy (1962) | Cinema Omnivore

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