Title: West Side Story
Release Date: 18 October, 1961
Oscar Ceremony: 9 April, 1962
Director: Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise
Starring: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer & Rita Moreno
Nominees: Fanny, The Guns of Navarone, The Hustler, Judgement at Nuremberg
“Why do you kids live like there’s a war on?” – Doc
I had been looking forward to this one. All my life I’ve heard so many songs and references from this movie and all I could do was nod and pretend I knew the context. It was nice to finally understand where they all came from. I mean, who doesn’t sing “I Feel Pretty” after a few drinks and a good look in the mirror?
If you’re relatively familiar with the story of Romeo & Juliet (and by that I mean you know more than just the fact that they both die at the end), you should have no problem following the plot of West Side Story. Instead of the Montagues and Capulets feuding in 14th century Verona, we have the Jets and the Sharks fighting in 20th century Manhattan. They are both infamous street gangs made up of young men, except the Jets are typical native New Yorkers, while the Sharks are Puerto Rican immigrants. The social and racial tensions get even more complicated when ex-member and co-founder of the Jets, Tony, comes back to the gang and meets Maria, a Puerto Rican girl he falls in love with. The feeling is mutual, but their relationship is strictly frowned upon because of their opposing sides. Moreover, Maria’s brother actually happens to be the leader of the Sharks, so that really doesn’t work out very well. Now, replace the fight scenes with dance numbers and the soliloquies with songs, and you’ve got yourself this classic 1962 Best Picture winner that you’re not about to get out of your head anytime soon.
Unfortunately, I have to say that I was a bit let down by this movie, but that might just be because I had set the bar a bit too high. Still, most of the issues I had can easily be put aside. I know someone who can very eloquently explain why this movie is so iconic, and lucky for you, she agreed to write most of this review. This person is none other than my amazing cousin Maria. Naturally, considering she shares a name with the protagonist, you’ll have to take whatever she says with a grain of salt. I think she’s still under the impression that this movie is all about her… Kidding. She’s a rational human being. So without further ado, here is Maria’s piece on West Side Story:
Upon knowing my name, or eventually, people tend to sing to me one of the many songs about/for Marias out there. It’s a shame that they never sing this one because it’s by far the best (the Santana song is the most popular, if you were wondering). I doubt I’ll ever be able to be unbiased about a movie featuring the best song with my name. Actually, I might have told some people, back in high school, that I was named after this movie. It’s a lie, but one can dream.
(Correction: upon reading the review, my mother informed me that it was NOT a lie, and this movie was indeed one of the contributing factors of my name.)
The music, the choreographies, the sets, the costumes, everything about this movie is magical. Shot with Panavision 70mm, it’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve ever seen. With the film’s first shots, aerial shots of Manhattan that get closer and closer to the ground, we hear the Jets—their snaps, their whistles—accompanied by faint percussions and a horn that supports those whistles until we reach the street and the Prologue starts. And boy, what a prologue! With very little dialogue, we understand the power the Jets hold, their rivalry with the Sharks, and basically the conflict of the story we’re about to see. All the information passes through their movements; this sequence (and the whole movie, actually) is a great example of how showing, instead of telling, works better. Like in any good musical, the songs are part of the story, and they help advance it. They also help reach more emotional depth, heightening the feelings of the characters. I don’t think I could pick a favourite (apart from “Maria,” of course).
Most people are familiar with Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. However, West Side Story goes above simply adapting it; it transforms and modernizes it. It takes the premise of two people from feuding gangs falling in love, suffering the consequences of a fight that doesn’t concern them, and it changes what’s needed to make it relevant to the times: the struggles of immigrants and of the working class. And it’s still relevant today.
From the get-go, we know this will end in tragedy. And yet, we still can’t help but root for Tony and Maria and hope that, unlike those tragic Shakespearian heroes, they will make it. They are older than Romeo and Juliet, but preserve the same naivety and charm. Their love, however short-lived, is believable and profound. They only see each other, the world blurring around them when they’re together. The first time they see each other, the world literally stops. Their romance provides some of the most beautiful songs from any musical: Maria, Tonight, One Hand One Heart, and Somewhere. Young love might be foolish, but it’s passionate and real. They are the heart of the movie, their pulse transforming into music.
The film isn’t only a tragedy; it also has comedic sequences. Songs like “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “I Feel Pretty,” and even “Cool” to some degree, help diffuse the tension. However, America is the best out of these comedic songs. It’s a funny banter between the Puerto Rican women and men and their differing views on America. The women see it as a land of freedom and opportunities, while the men recognize their lack of privilege in a racist world. What’s lovely about this scene is that both are right and treated with respect. Both express the conflicting sentiments many immigrants feel about the home they left behind and the one they’re trying to build in a new country. However, it’s treated in a light manner, as if we’re spectators of an intimate—and large—family gathering. They aren’t arguing, they’re simply having fun. While the movie places the struggles immigrants face at the front, there is a problem with the film’s casting of Latinos with white, non-Latino actors, a problem that could easily be reduced to the times, but that’s sadly still very persistent today (the latest example being Scarlett Johansson portraying a Japanese character in the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell). Hopefully, Hollywood will be better, ideally sooner rather than later.
Another interesting aspect of West Side Story is the dynamic between the Jets and the Sharks. A few scenes show that dialogue isn’t impossible between the two, as we see them gang up together on the cops. Their cooperation is only to unite against a bigger evil, a bigger institution that harms them both. The movie makes a statement throughout; while these gangs commit crimes, they’re only a product of their environment and the oppression they face. Some people could learn a thing or two from this movie. There is also a true sense of camaraderie amongst the Jets, who have found in each other the family they were missing. The importance of family is highlighted throughout the film, both with the Jets and the Sharks.
West Side Story is thematically strong, visually compelling, and musically delightful. I feel like there is so much more to say about the musical numbers and dance routines, but really, you should just see for yourselves!
So there you have it, folks! Don’t you want to go watch it now? I would probably give it another shot myself. My main issue was the the lead actress, Natalie Wood. She is gorgeous and perfect for the role, but her accent was a big flop. She sounded like someone forcing herself to imitate a middle-aged Eastern European woman! Are there no talented and beautiful Latina women out there? Then I told myself, ok ok maybe they chose her because she has one heck of a soprano voice. HOWEVER, I found out that they actually dubbed her, so that’s not even her singing! Same goes for the actor who plays Tony. Natalie Wood was famous and bankable, but what’s their excuse for him? Someone has some explaining to do. Thank god for Rita Moreno though. She is an angel sent from heaven AND she’s actually Puerto Rican too. More of her, please!
In the end, I admired the movie’s artistic approach and the way it turned a classic tale into the portrayal of an extremely relevant issue that people often tend to overlook. It’s not just about the tragedies of forbidden love anymore; it’s about human nature and the other side of the American dream. I always thought that Romeo and Juliet was better in theory than in practice, but West Side Story did a good job at adapting it. If you can get past everyone’s fake tans, you’ll appreciate it.