W is for West Side Story (1961)

When two teenagers from rival gangs fall in love, Tony (Richard Beymer) is from the Jets and Maria (Natalie Wood) is from the Sharks, the tension between their respective friends builds towards tragedy.

West Side Story is one of those classic and much-loved films that I just hadn’t seen before even though I do tend to enjoy musicals. Now I’m happy to say I’ve watched it and enjoyed it. I also discovered that I knew a number of the songs in West Side Story, but never realised they had originated from the musical, for instance; “Somewhere” and “I Feel Pretty”.

West Side Story is a bit slow to start, especially as the opening ten minutes is mostly young men clicking their fingers threateningly and having dance battles. However once the characters and the rivalry between the Jets (Polish Americans) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) is set up the movie goes by at a steady pace with great songs and dancing. West Side Story also offers commentary on racial divides, how unachievable the American Dream is and, with the song “Gee, Officer Krupke”, how the authorities try to blame crime on everyone and everything but themselves.

The dancing really is incredible. All of the cast are extremely talented and there are so many wide shots so you can see just how well everyone moves. There are fun song and dances like “America” led by Rita Moreno as Anita. Moreno is the perfect blend of attitude and sensitivity as Anita and the way she dances and how the camera follows her is a delight to watch.

The set design and lighting add to the drama too as tensions grow between the Jets, led by Tony’s best friend Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Sharks led by Maria’s older brother Bernardo (George Chakiris). There’s so much red used in West Side Story, both to symbolise violence and passion and love and romance. The costumes are beautiful too, from the purple suits the Sharks wear to the dresses Maria and her fellow seamstresses wear.

While Rita Moreno almost steals the whole movie as Anita, Beymer and Wood do make a great lead couple as Tony and Maria. Their romance is sweet and powerful and while tragedy is just around the corner, they’ll do anything to stay together.

West Side Story is fun, bright and has some great songs and dances. I’m pleased I’ve finally watched this classic musical, and with Stephen Spielberg making his own version – I’m interested to see how it compares to the original. 4/5.

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