West Side Story (1961)

Written by Anna Harrison


West Side Story, from the moment of its premiere, etched itself into the annals of musical theater history; now, fifty years later, even without the upcoming Steven Spielberg remake looming over us, the words and strains of songs like “Maria” and “I Feel Pretty” still get stuck in our heads, and if you start snapping with both hands, odds are someone will join in and you’ll find yourself in a face-off. Watching this for the first time in 2021, and just over a week since West Side Story lyricist and musical theater titan Stephen Sondheim’s passing, it’s not hard to see why the movie has remained so prominent in the cultural consciousness.

The plot of West Side Story is one that’s been told a thousand times over, first by Ovid in Metamorphoses and then by the Bard in Romeo and Juliet: two star-crossed lovers, separated by family feuds, meet their tragic end, only this time there’s more singing and dancing. West Side Story had found great success as on stage, and so a film adaptation would be almost a guaranteed success even if it had done the bare minimum; luckily, co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins (who also served as choreographer before getting dismissed amid too many delays and injuries), as well as cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, make full use of the new medium to craft a visually stunning film whose energetic dance numbers and strong supporting performances vault it into the top tier of movie musicals.

The opening scene, almost completely wordless, introduces our two gangs, both alike in dignity, in fair Upper West Side where we lay our scene—there are the white Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, each bursting onto the scene with a flurry of ballet that manages to make that graceful, elegant dance style look deadly. It’s a remarkable introduction, one that clearly establishes the two rival gangs via dance with no dialogue needed. The Jets, led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), are determined to drive the Sharks and their head, Bernardo (George Chakiris), from town; to do this, he enlists the help of former Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer). Tony soon forgets his promise to help his friends when he lays eyes on Maria (Natalie Wood) at a local dance, even though she is Bernardo’s younger sister. 

Tony and Maria’s meeting feels lifted straight out of a fairytale: the two quite literally only have eyes for each other, as the camera blurs everyone else out of frame. When Tony and Maria begin to dance, they are whisked away to an indistinct starry landscape, where they dance their love affair out, only to be reminded of harsh reality as the gangs intercede and the two are torn apart.

So many years after its premiere, it seems pointless to go over what happens next—even if you’ve never seen West Side Story, you know. The magic, looking back, comes not from the main story, but from the vibrant colors, the kinetic editing of Thomas Stanford, the athletic dancing, and the beautiful music from Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. The vibrant red, the deep purple, the stark white, the way the camera knows exactly when to sit still and let the choreography do the talking but isn’t afraid to use cuts to ramp up the tension, the achingly romantic songs. Beymer and Wood might fail to inspire as they should, but the trappings around them more than make up for their own shortcomings, and the supporting cast around them pick up the slack with ease. Chakiris and in particular Rita Moreno as Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend, are so magnetic that it’s hard to keep your eyes off of them: the energetic number “America,” set on a New York rooftop, provides one of the most exciting sequences in the film, and Moreno is simply electric. (Wood, when compared with Moreno, bears no small resemblance to a brick, apparently putting more effort into her overwrought Puerto Rican accent than her facial expressions.)

Of course, though West Side Story still looks beautiful, and its dance numbers continue to amaze, not everything has aged well. As a piece of filmmaking, it shines; as social commentary, its execution leaves quite a few things to be desired. Ironically for a movie that spends so much of its time bemoaning racial divisions, most of its Puerto Rican characters were played by white (or in Chakiris’ case, Greek) actors in brownface, and even Rita Moreno—herself Puerto Rican—had her own paler complexion buried under mountains of makeup. That this was done with the intent of helping bridge racial divides and was par for the course in 1961 makes it no better, and the commentary comes in broader strokes than perhaps is ideal (though “America” has got quite a few layers to it). While West Side Story is and should remain a classic, it is not infallible—yet the ideals it tries (and sometimes fails) to live up to resonate still now, and with Spielberg bringing it to the modern day, it seems like there will continue to be a place for West Side Story somehow, some day, somewhere.

West Side Story Trailer

West Side Story is available for rent or purchase on most major VOD platforms.

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