Review: West Side Story (1961)

The festive season always brings out the oldie-but-goldies, and more often than not they still stand the test of time.

In the middle of Manhattan, two lovers find each other. But their relationship is at risk of being torn apart by them being on either side of gang hostilities and racial prejudice.

Based off of a stage play, and widely considered an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, West Side Story completely ran away with Academy Awards in the year of 1962. It claimed Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Colour Cinematography, Best Music, among many others, totalling ten awards that year. It isn’t hard to see why either, when watching it today, the movie still holds its own against contemporaries.

Now, it is easy for someone to snort at older films, but since we all cringe at all the remakes we have today (West Side Story was remade in 2021, by Spielberg no less) we should remember the originals and still judge them appropriately. Sometimes, time has taken its toll, or culture has changed too much since, but other times we can still find a lot to appreciate.
The 1961 version is the latter. Starring Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer (who both went on to star in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series) Rita Moreno, Natalie Wood, and George Chakiris, the first thing viewers will see is not only the choreography and dancing prowess, but also the athleticism at play. The story’s emotions play out heavily with the use of dance and choreographed routines, often with performers leaping over the walls and high fences that litter the Manhattan streets.

Certainly, the production value is also excellent; rooftop scenes are convincing, the streets are worn and scummy, the costumes of the characters are well designed and distinctly colour-coded. Our two warring gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are introduced immediately as being at odds with each other, with their private chaos disrupting the peace.
While certainly later in the film opinions change, for the majority of the runtime, neither gang is better than the other… The Jets believing they are established and own their turf, the Sharks being primarily Puerto Rican immigrants looking for a new beginning.
Thus is the rub; with Richard Beymer’s Tony (a very 1960’s Prince Charming-type character) and Natalia Wood’s Maria meet from opposite sides of this conflict and fall in love. With Maria’s overbearing and protective brother leading the Sharks, and Tony’s best friend Riff leading the Jets… well, things may not go so well.

It is an old tale, but the presentation is very unique and the performances are extremely solid. The dancing is always impressive, while there are some widely-recognized songs as well: “America”, “Tonight Quintet”, and “I Feel Pretty”, have been used time and time again in other contexts. These are all excellent and catchy songs.

There are some little issues looking back at the 1961 version. There are a couple of moments during extensive dance sequences when the filming must have been done on a lesser quality camera for certain shots. The quality dips heavily for these couple of shots, which is a shame as the film’s superb-looking otherwise. It can only be assumed there was time pressure, and getting two-dozen dancers and actors to redo an entire sequence would have been unlikely by the time the final edit was completed.
Another issue would be the age of the actors. The characters are regularly called “kids”, and there’s a suggestion by how they interact with “adults” such as Doc and police officers, that these characters are quite young, perhaps even in their teens. While it isn’t at all unusual for Hollywood to hire actors older than their portrayed characters, there comes a point when you ask yourself: wait, how old are these people meant to be?

Don’t be dissuaded by it being a musical. While there is a lot of lightness in some of the musical numbers, the story takes very dark turns. Surprisingly dark. Forcing you to reassess your opinions of many characters you had started to familiarise with.

Indeed, the film stands the test of time, and it is no bad thing to give some time to it.

Additional Marshmallows: I’m not normally one to watch musicals, but I guess I need to watch the Spielberg version now!

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