- 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.
- 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 (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.
- “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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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
Have you had a chance to see Licorice Pizza yet? Have seen in twice in cinemas now and it’s far and away my favourite movie from 2021. Keen to hear your thoughts on it
Happy New Year and Merry Christmas also
@Joel- Yes, I have seen it once- which is never enough with a PTA film- so I am hoping to get to it again soon. Happy New Year and Merry Christmas as well.
Such a shame I’ll only be able to see it next month. Any quick thoughts, Drake?
@Pedro- Sorry- I am still sort of processing it. I do not mind sharing that I was a little underwhelmed- but I also trust my first reaction to PTA’s work less than just about any other filmmaker. Hopefully have more to share soon.
What did you think of Spielberg’s adaptation?
@Azman- I thought it was very solid, should have a page for it shortly