West Side Story (1961)
Release Date: December 13th, 1961 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise Actors: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, Tucker Smith, Tony Mordente
one are the days of the grand movie musicals, lengthy yet epic, and filled with unforgettable music and intricately choreographed dance numbers. Spontaneous singing, dancing, and finger-snapping are perhaps too silly for realism-demanding modern crowds, especially when the story is centered upon warring New York gangs. It’s certainly an artistic and seemingly nonsensical method to express adolescent anxieties and rage. But in the ‘60s, it was very much an accepted fantasy escape, full of colorful costuming and gymnastic roughhousing. Fights involve ballet movements, twirls, jumps, and gravity-defying acrobatics to supplement the energetic enthusiasm that skirts the seriousness of violence and intolerance, as more appropriately displayed in the Broadway musical play from which “West Side Story” was adapted. Plus, at its heart is a timeless love story.
The Manhattan, white (Italian/Irish/Polish), primarily blonde-haired American gang the “Jets” continues its turf war with the Puerto Rican immigrant gang the “Sharks.” Makeshift basketball courts, fruit-stand-occupied sidewalks, trash-littered alleys, dumps, and playgrounds are their battlefields, where scuffles are always primed to kick off. Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) and Officer Krupke (William Bramley) are on the prowl to keep the peace, but garner little respect from the young hoodlums scurrying through the city. Jets leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) seeks out ex-Jet Tony (Richard Beymer) to attend a dance in the evening to support the gang. “Without a gang, you’re an orphan!” exclaims Riff, convincing Tony to relive the rush of youthful recklessness.
The Sharks plan to attend the dance as well, with leader Bernardo (George Chakiris) bringing his sister Maria (Natalie Wood). Since the Sharks prove to be a more daunting adversary than previous rival groups, the Jets are prompted to arrange a war council to set up a final rumble for ownership of the streets. Whether or not knives and guns are suggested, the Jets must stick together and never back down. Tony is designated as the man to present the challenge, but finds himself conflicted when he spies Maria at the celebration and instantly falls in love.
It’s no secret that the story is largely swiped from “Romeo and Juliet”; that Natalie Wood is not Hispanic (nor did she actually sing); and that the supporting roles are more authentically portrayed than the leads – but the film still stole the hearts of audiences and won an astonishing ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture of 1961. Numerous songs are catchy and impressive, most notably “Tonight,” a tune that has come to represent the movie itself. Joyously, it’s repeated more than once in the production. Other highlights include “Somewhere” and “Quintet,” establishing that the numbers inspired by tragedy are more powerful than the fun-loving, lighter melodies. As a whopping 150-minute film, it’s chiefly a success of iconic pieces rather than an impeccable whole.
The script is clever enough to include themes of immigrant discrimination, poverty as realism versus the dream of boundless financial opportunities, the meaning of freedom, and other advantages and disadvantages as debated quite explicitly in the song “America.” There is also the satirizing of juvenile delinquency, negative influences of crippled family values, and loveless household life – leading to a fleeing to the streets for the camaraderie of gangs and their influential ability to spark better qualities, again articulated through a song (“Gee, Officer Krupke,” which proves to be ironically wrong when a fatal altercation ensues). Symbolism also makes its way into the mix through the visual imagery of metal railings at Maria’s home, like jail cell bars separating the two forbidden lovers; during the inevitable brawl, a brief sequence of bloodshed resigns Tony and Maria to their Shakespearean fates (further exasperated by the harassment of messenger Anita), signaling that death will be the necessary instigator of peace. But “West Side Story” will principally always be remembered for its music.
– Mike Massie