• West Side Story is simply one of the great musicals in cinema history.
  • The film has roots in the successful 1950s theater production—which it is an update on Shakespeare- putting Romeo and Juliet on the west side of New York City in contemporary (late 1950s) setting.
  • The story is rather simple- there are two rival gangs: The Jets and The Sharks. Tony (Richard Beymer) is a Jet (sort of) and Maria (Natalie Wood) is the sister of the leader of the Sharks. They fall in love.
  • West Side Story features the boom of Leonard Bernstein’s score and the poetics of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrical skill. These are two major figures in twentieth century music- and West Side Story is a big reason why they are two major figures in twentieth century music.
  • The film opens with the breathtaking overhead 65mm Eastman shots of New York City.

Shortly after, there are five members of the Jets in profile snapping together in a perfectly staged arrangement. Then they add more making for seven in a shot that would fit nicely in a Kurosawa film from the era.

  • There is a magnificent prologue (which is different than the overture). An overture was common in that era – just like the 65mm crystal clear brilliant photography was common (or at least more common) in that era- especially in bigger budget, longer running time (153 minutes) films. The members of the two gangs chase each other (in synchronized dance form) during this prologue before any real dialogue takes place.
  • The dialogue is youth slang heavy
  • Like Seven Samurai (1954) or Sanjuro (1962) there are often as many as ten heads in the frame (captured by Robert Wise)—one such case is during the “Jet Song” on the teeter totter.
  • Nearly thirty (30) minutes before Natalie Wood shows up as Maria.

Strong wide shot of the talented ensemble dancing at the gym in synchronization

  • Strong wide shot of the talented ensemble dancing at the gym in synchronization (above). Purple and red for the Sharks—yellows and blues for the Jets. And everyone in the cast (aside from Beymer and Wood) can dance sublimely. George Chakiris (been around since at least White Christmas in 1954) and Rita Moreno won Oscars—and Russ Tamblyn is nearly as good as those two. Tamblyn plays the cocky Riff flipping all over the place.

A standout shot at the gym isolates Beymer’s Tony and Wood’s Maria -altering/softening the camera focus between the two so only those two are shown in clarity

Another visual jaw dropper is the emerald backdrop on Beymer as he belts down the “Maria” number after the gym scene.

  • “America” up on the roof is a showstopper. In virtually every other musical this is the number the entire movie is built around (and often the film/filmmaker just sorts of survives/tolerates the rest of the film)—but not here. This is just one highlight among many in West Side Story. Moreno and Chakiris alternate back and forth during “America”. The camera loves Moreno—such presence (in her scenes with Natalie, Moreno dusts poor Natalie off the screen). Moreno playfully chews up the scenery.

Wise and Robbins (this is a Robbins sequence) shoot them from low angles to capture their skills as dancers.

  • The alley stairs serve as the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
  • After the intermission (again, common in large format films in the late 1950s and early 1960s) there is a golden glow on an immaculate composition of Tony and Maria’s mock marriage during “One Hand, One Heart”.

The “Quintet” chorus number has the rival gangs posing at a camera (making for a painting like the gawkers in Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul).

They are singing directly to the camera with luminous Duel in the Sun-like faux red studio sunset glow behind. The high quality musical numbers keep coming- there are enough here to space out between four or five excellent films. But West Side Story packs them all into one- the same way a truly great album does not have a throwaway track.

  • An exquisite action sequence number (Francis Ford Coppola had to have seen this for Rumble Fish) under the highway with the red painted structure shot at oblique angles.

When “Somewhere” comes on- the multicolored stained-glass windows in Maria’s bedroom are shown off by Wise and Robbins (this is a Wise section).

“Cool” is just dance choreography bliss on display—the gang runs at the camera in a line with the simultaneous jump snap- this is the best sequence- but this entire scene was enough to inspire Martin Scorsese and Michael Jackson for Jackson’s “Bad” music video.

  • Jerome Robbins (this is his only directing credit- and it is a co-directing credit with Wise) completed four musical numbers (“I Feel Pretty”, “Cool” (stunning), “America” (another absolute wow) and the prologue) before he was taken off the movie.
  • A Must-See Masterpiece border- leaning masterpiece