West Side Story (1961) – Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins

Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins direct the film that brings me back to the musical genre in the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book.

Stephen Sondheim pens the lyrics for this Academy Award winning musical (including Best Picture) that is an updated retelling of Shakespeare’s beautiful tragedy Romeo & Juliet with Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood playing the star-crossed lovers.

Set in New York, we are introduced to two warring teen gangs, the Sharks, representing the Puerto Rican culture, while the Jets are predominantly white. Right away, we recognise the underlying racism that is still prevalent in the world (and this film was made in 1961!) as well as the immigrant experience in the United States.

This is hinted at amidst the spectacle and technicolor wonder that fills the screen. It always amazes me that a nation that prided itself on being built by immigrants continues to treat newcomers as unwanted and even criminals.

These young teens pose and strut, violence becomes dance and the Bard’s tale reached a whole generation that could now relate to it on their own terms.

I had never seen this one before now, so I was able to come into it fresh, and enjoy the stories and performances for the first time. The sets are wonderfully designed, bringing a romanticised version of New York to life, the costumes, are vibrant, and colours are as important to the themes of the film as the performances and the songs.

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And those songs.

 

I’ve known a number of those songs for years, Maria, Tonight, I Feel Pretty, America, and Somewhere. A number of the film/stage musical’s crossed over into pop culture covered by a variety of artists. This has caused a bit of super-saturation of these titles, diluting their meaning and importance.

But seeing them within the context of the film, hearing the emotion, and following along on the character arcs, gave a whole new meaning to them, for me. Prime example is Somewhere. This is a song that gets beaten to death. Seeing it captured in the moments of the film, there is so much more going on in the song and in the characters than usually doesn’t get conveyed in a pop performance of the song.

With a run time of two and a half hours, the film could be bulky and overlong, however the story and performances, including an Oscar winning turn for Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno, moves quickly and entertainingly.

I loved settling in and enjoying this film, and watching it with someone who loves it, and has seen it multiple times made for a very pleasant viewing experience, and she enjoyed my delight when John Astin made an appearance!

This was a wonderfully made film and I delighted in my introduction to it.

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