West Side Story (1961)

“When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy.”

Synopsis:
At a community dance in New York City, a Puerto Rican girl named Maria (Natalie Wood) falls in love with the former gangleader (Richard Beymer) of the Jets, currently helmed by Riff (Russ Tamlyn). The Jets are about to rumble with the Sharks, led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (George Chakiris), and Bernardo’s girlfriend (Rita Moreno) warns Maria (Wood) to stay away from Tony (Beymer) — but their love transcends racial tensions; will it be allowed to flourish?

Genres:

Review:
Peary doesn’t review this Oscar-winning musical — based on Arthur Laurents’ Shakespearean-inspired Broadway play, with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreography by Jerome Robbins — in his GFTFF, but he does name it the Best Picture of the Year in his Alternate Oscars, where he discusses both its merits and some of his personal memories upon first viewing it. He begins by noting “just how flawed it is”, but argues that “the flaws seem to vanish in a wave of nostalgia”, and given that “there were no great English-language pictures released in 1961”, he agrees with the Academy in its recognition of this film — co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins — as Best Picture if simply “to acknowledge the numerous moviegoers for whom it has special memories”. He argues that “of all the performers, Rita Moreno” (who won an Oscar) “is the film’s class act”, and that “her singing and dancing during ‘America’ is the musical highlight”.

Indeed, the music and dancing overall in this film are its indisputable high points. I’m an obsessive fan of Bernstein’s score, and could easily listen to it on its own without visuals or lyrics — but it’s fun to combine them altogether. Speaking of Sondheim’s lyrics, they hold nothing back in revealing racist attitudes and practices, particularly during ‘America’:

(Girls) Everything free in America
(Bernardo) For a small fee in America
(Anita) Buying on credit is so nice
(Bernardo) One look at us and they charge twice

(Girls) Life is all right in America
(Boys) If you’re all white in America

and in overtly bigoted dialogue by Office Krupke (William Bramley):

You Puerto Ricans get what you’ve been itching for: use of the playground, use of the gym, the streets, the candy store. So what if you do turn this whole town into a stinkin’ pig sty? … Yeah, sure, I know. It’s a free country, I ain’t got the right. But I got a badge. What do you got? Things are tough all over. Beat it.

Peary ends his review in Alternate Oscars by noting that “one forgets that in 1961 this film, which pleads for brotherhood, was daring to an uncomfortable degree”. He points out that “except for Tony, Maria, and the elderly Doc (Ned Glass), the characters are a pretty rotten group. They are all biased.” Actually, this aspect of the film — its no-holds-barred look at bigotry and violence — remains both startling and refreshing; its themes of racial intolerance and territorial supremacy remain as salient as ever, if not more so.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Wonderfully choreographed dances
  • Vibrant Technicolor cinematography and sets


  • Natalie Wood as Maria
  • Rita Moreno as Anita
  • Creative closing credits
  • Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s score and lyrics

Must See?
Yes, for its historical value and wonderful musical sequences. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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2 Responses to “West Side Story (1961)”

  1. Obviously a must as an enduring classic that’s still relevant today with gang culture becoming a particular problem here in the UK in inner cities.

    Apart from being a great piece of cinema by one of the all-time great American filmmakers, it’s still revived and discussed and well known.

    Definite must see.

  2. A must-see for musical buffs. Optional for others.

    I’m glad it was brought out that ‘WSS’ is recommended “for its historical value and wonderful musical sequences” – because that’s more or less how I feel. As much as I love musicals (and I really do), I’m still someone who watches film with a critical eye – so, to be honest, rewatching a number of the ‘classic’ movie musicals can (to varying degrees) be something of a chore – even when they have a good amount to recommend them.

    ‘WSS’ is like that for me. Even though I have a copy of it in my library, it’s not a film I often go back to. When I think about the last time I saw it (not really all that long ago), I enjoyed it overall but I didn’t love it – and I enjoyed certain sections more than others; I also occasionally felt a little bored. I could, for example, feel exhilarated by the film’s opening shots of the city – and the dance at the gym (with its memorable dancing). But then I also felt a lull during ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ (which, somehow, has never really worked for me as a calculated ‘moment of levity’).

    And, of course, each time I see the film, Rita Moreno runs away with it. As well, a handful of the songs in particular strike a real chord in me: ‘Something’s Coming’, ‘America’, ‘One Hand, One Heart’, ‘A Boy Like That / I Have a Love’.

    I don’t want to belittle the film’s importance in terms of its central theme – that still retains just about all of its power and, alone, is a reason to see it.

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