West Side Story (1961)
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris
Directed by: Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise
Released by: MGM/United Artists
Synopsis: Tony (Richard Beymer), leader of the Jets, has fallen in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the Shark’s leader. Can their love blossom despite the dangers of two rival gangs?
Review: It was bound to happen. In my journey to discover the greatest films ever made I was destined to find the one movie I didn’t enjoy at all regardless of its legacy on the silver screen. To me, that movie is West Side Story.
West Side Story has enjoyed enormous success as both a stage play and a film musical, earning it several awards and recognitions since its release. The storyline is a 1950s version of the classic William Shakespeare play “Romeo and Juliet”, with dueling street gangs replacing the rival families. With a plot as established as Romero and Juliet, how can the movie go wrong? But alas, I have to big issues with the story.
The first is with the theme of the plot. It simply doesn’t know if it wants to be a grandiose melodrama or a silly musical. It keeps switching gears between both, making the film a very hard one to watch. There are moments where it tries to be comedic and whimsical, then goes into very dark drama, and goes back to silliness for a brief moment. It’s one of my biggest annoyances when it comes to stories. You must establish a balance between emotions in order to be an effective story, and West Side Story fails at this.
The other problem lies in the characters. To put it bluntly, these are some of the most unlikable characters to have appeared in a musical ever. I realize that these are all street punks that we shouldn’t respect, but the problem extends to the rest of the supporting cast as well. The authority figures are non-existent, and the ones that do come in are very pathetic. Not even Tony and Maria, the doomed lovers in this picture, are able to give the film an ounce of character. The actors try their best in their respective roles, but the unflattering ethnic stereotypes do not help them at all.
West Side Story’s only saving grace lies in the music and choreography, which are really good. I enjoyed how the dancing interprets street violence and gives some character to the film. A problem, though, is that they tend to go on for a very long time, adding nothing of substance and testing the audience’s patience. The songs fare better thanks to such iconic songs such as “Maria” and “America”. Unfortunately, some of them are superfluous to the story and just worsens West Side Story’s problem with the theme.
I understand that West Side Story has a huge legacy behind it, with its music and characters often referenced in the modern media, and people consider it to be one of the best romantic films of all time. In my case, West Side Story left me with an empty, disappointed feeling. It goes to show that good music and dancing sometimes isn’t enough to carry a film through its completion. Film musicals like “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady” have proven that you can have thrilling music, extraordinary performances and fantastic story and character development. West Side Story nails the singing and dancing down, but forgets to give us characters to care for and an enjoyable plot regardless of its resolution.
Rating: 2 filmstrips out of 5