West Side Story (1961)
One of the biggest musicals ever made, "West Side Story" is one of the most successful movies to ever take the Academy Awards by storm. Winning a staggering ten Oscars, the film delves into darkness, gangs, murder, forbidden love, and racism—but it masquerades as a fluffy musical all the while.
A Romeo and Juliet type story, the movie begins with the Jets and the Sharks—the two rival gangs comprised of white and Puerto Rican people respectively—having a dance off. They snap their fingers in a semi-menacingly way and bully all the people. The opening number is enough to prove that the Jets and the Sharks don't get along.
But if the prolonged dance wasn't enough we get scheming and plotting done by the Jets. They want to be the sole owner of the playground and the alleyways, the undisputed kings of the land.
Both the Sharks and the Jets are teenage delinquents. They don't know any better because their frontal cortex hasn't fully developed...or something like that...it sounds true.
So the leader of the Jets, a boy named Riff (Russ Tamblyn), decides that they should have an all-out-war and determine who is the rightful owner of...the playground...da-da-dum.
They decide that they are going to challenge the Sharks on the night of a local dance...and dance that somehow both Sharks and Jets are going to be present at without fighting occurring.
So Riff goes to his friend Tony (Richard Beymer) and asks him to help with the "rumble". Tony refuses, he's gotten out of the gang life. He tells Riff that he feels like he's missing something from his life—as if he's reaching out for an object with longing, but he can't quite tell what it is.
Then there's the Sharks. Led by Bernardo (George Chakiris) and his girl Anita (Rita Moreno), the Sharks are just trying to live the American dream. To do this, they have to evade the terrible racism that permeates every street corner and the mind of every white character in the film, with possibly one or two exceptions.
Maria (Natalie Wood), is Bernardo's sister, a young, virginal girl who is eager to go to the dance because she sees the festival as an admittance of her womanhood.
So Maria, Riff, Bernardo, Tony, Anita, the Jets, and the Sharks end up at the dance. There are many, many big dance numbers. The scene proves that the Jets and Sharks don't get along—as if we needed another reminder.
But then, Maria and Tony make eye contact from across the room and —wham—instant love. They fall for each other...hard.
Naturally their love is a forbidden one, so how can things possibly work out?
There are moments of "West Side Story" that are truly inspired genius. These moments include comments on how America is not as welcoming as we think it is, a character trying to cross the bridge between the two gangs, and the finale itself.
But there are more moments in "West Side Story" that just appear self-indulgent and laughable. Most notably is any real connection between Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Also, for a movie that is all about being true to yourself, your heritage, and your love—wouldn't it have been more powerful to actually cast a Puerto Rican actress in the role instead of a white girl doing an accent?
Wood does a perfectly fine job, it's nothing special—but most of the time, Beymer destroys all feelings on the screen. It's really quite horrendous.
The dance numbers are more violent—sure it might seem comical now to see gangster dancing the way these kids do, but for the time it was very innovative. It's a dramatic musical that ends depressingly. Yet it does try for the funny moments and the cutesy moments.
"West Side Story" is not a bad movie, it's just not a great movie either. Somehow, it undermines itself—ruining the one thing it was trying to convey to its viewers.
Score: 2 and a half stars out of 4
Posted by Micah Jones