Internet trolls now days love to complain about new movies that borrow similar story ideas from other films. When “Avatar” came out in 2009, it didn’t matter that is was a technical achievement, or an original experience, all that mattered was how similar the story was to other films like “Dances with Wolves” ... which it was, but that didn’t make it bad by any means. When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” came out in 2015, it didn’t matter that it was an entertaining Sci-Fi adventure with outstanding new characters, the only thing those trolls paid attention to was that it borrowed maybe one or two little plot points from the first film. It’s true that some movies can come off as uninspired rehashes of better movies. However, we also tend to forget that some of Hollywood’s most beloved classics have taken huge inspiration and influence from other sources. Case and point, the 1961 musical “West Side Story” is pretty much the strait forward story of “Romeo and Juliet”, just in a different setting, time period, and with musical numbers, yet it stands apart, and in many ways is even superior to what inspired it.
Not only is “West Side Story” largely considered a classic, but also better than most real versions of “Romeo and Juliet”, and one of the most iconic of Shakespeare’s big screen adaptions. It’s that rare case in which the story isn’t original at all, but the experience, style and direction are as unique and special as they get. It was such a success that over the years, other artist have tried to create their own “West Side Story”, but usually with mixed results. For example, in 1994 Disney animated studio’s aimed to create their own “West Side Story” in the form of a little film titled “Pocahontas”. Seriously, while the setting and time period is different, the story and series of events are eerily similar, right down to some of the song numbers. However, this isn’t a review of “Pocahontas”, so let’s not get side tracked, and focus on “West Side Story”.
The time period is mid 1950’s, the place is New York, and the situation revolves around a turf war in the slums of Manhattan. A small group of juvenile young Americans called “The Jet’s” aren’t happy sharing the streets with a second group of juvenile young men from Portuguese called “The Sharks”. Meanwhile, the local authorities want them to chill and learn to get along. Both teams soon find themselves attending a party, in which one of the leaders of the Jets named Tony meets a girl named Maria, who’s the sister of the leader of the Sharks. Without batting an eye, the two fall in love, and are determined to start a new life together. As their relationship grows, conflicts between the two teams get worse, which leads to bloodshed, tragedy, betrayal and two young lovers trying to do all in their power to stop the fighting. All the familiar stamps of “Romeo and Juliet” are very recognizable, from the party, to recreating the balcony scene, to the rumble between the two opposing groups, to the tragic ending, etc. However, director Robert Wise adds his own unique and dazzling style to the experience, which makes the film feel original despite a familiar narrative. One of my favorite scenes is when Maria and Tony first meet at the party, everyone in the background gets distorted while our two lovers are the only ones in focus. Not only does this look great, it also illustrates how the rest of the world is slowly fading away from them now that they’ve found each other.
Let’s talk about the cast, who all stand bright and tall in this film. Maria is played by Natalie Wood, and she is excellent as always. Ever sense I first saw “Miracle on 34th Street”, the late Natalie Wood has been one of my favorite actresses, and she continued to impress in other films like “The Great Race”. Her role as Maria is just as memorable and charming as her performances get, and she owns every scene she’s in. Another stand out actress is Rita Moreno as Marina’s best friend Anita. This character was actually more compelling and interesting then our two lovers as she’s trying to find her place among her devotion to her best friend or the lead member of the Sharks who she’s in love with. Rita Moreno’s performance was so strong that she won an Oscar for best supporting actress. Another stand out character for me is the Jets leader Riff played by Russ Tamblyn. This guy is chalk full of charisma and it’s just a real joy whenever he’s on screen. The remaining performances are all very good, but the characters fall into the standard “okay” category. The main love interest Tony is fine, and the Sharks leader Bernardo is perfectly functional, but for me they don’t hit quiet the same high notes as the other players.
I really like how both the Jets and the Sharks have their positives and their faults. Neither team is perfect, and neither team is all bad. Despite some small differences they’re both just as rebellious, and that makes it harder for the audience to root for one team over the other. The Jets seem like the team with the most personality and charm, but they strike some low blows that really question their characters. There’s a scene when they gang up on Anita when she’s just trying to help, and while the Jets don’t rape her, it still feels like a disturbing violation, and puts these characters in a bad place. I think it was a very smart idea to make the conflicts revolve around gang violence, because I feel that it has a lot more relevance in this day and age as opposed to the conflicts in the original “Romeo and Juliet” which just involved two homes that didn’t get along. The only thing dated about this is some of the street lingo from the two teams. The way they talk, move and hold themselves while on screen definitely feels like a style of the time period, but it still fits within the tone and contents of the film.
Of course I can’t review a musical without talking about the musical numbers, which are all classic. If you’re a fan of popular Broadway style music, you may already recognize these songs without even seeing the film. If you were to bring up a random song number like “Maria’s Song”, you could easily follow up with its famous lyrics, which are “Maria … I just met a girl named Maria”. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, and he knows how to write memorable songs that stick with you. The set pieces are all great, and the players all become one with their surroundings whenever a dance number begins. Jerome Robbins Exuberant choreography is another one of the films key ingredients that gives this musical character. However, if I had to make one small complaint, it would be that the melody and tempo of these songs are less memorable. The song number “America” for example features one of the films best set pieces and it’s a stand out dance number, but while I remember the scene, I won’t be humming the song after word.
Don’t get me wrong, Leonard Bernstein’s score is excellent, and it definitely holds your attention while listening or watching this musical. But for me personally, it’s the lyrics and staging that really stick with me as opposed to the melody and rhythm of the songs themselves. Other musicals like “Singing in the Rain” and “Rent” also have memorable songs, but they also have extremely catchy melodies that stick with me long after I’ve watched them. Now there are some select songs in “West Side Story” that have their catchy tunes. The song “Gee, Officer Kruke” stands out with a catchy tempo to go along with the lyrics, which is surprising because it honestly isn’t even one of the better songs in the film. One of the more touching musical numbers which usually gets me in the “feels” is “Somewhere”, which is a duet between Tony and Maria that takes place at the height of all the character conflicts. My favorite song number by far, which captures the music, staging, visuals and melody perfectly is the second version of the song “Today”. With the sunset backdrop, the two teams marching to their biggest brawl, the tension building and the sharp edits between all the different characters, it’s arguably the films stand out moment that always comes to mind first when I think of this musical. This scene was also one of the many influences for Disney’s “Pocahontas”, as that film had a similar song number with two rival groups approaching one another, and sharp edits between all the different characters.
Overall, I’d say “West Side Story” has aged very well, and has earned its status as a classic. I was actually hesitant to even give this film a review because the movie itself says everything while you’re experiencing it. So the heck with my review, just watch the film and trust me when I say, it’s worth seeing whether you’re a fan of musicals or not. I’ll never forget when I was first introduced to this movie in a High school film class. It just captured my imagination, and helped inspire me to both review and analyze the art of film. What else can I say, the songs are timeless, the sets are great, the choreography is tight, and the whole production stands as a testament to old stories brought to life in new and original ways.
I give “West Side Story” 4 stars out of 5.