West Side Story (1961)

Last week I watched West Side Story for my class on musicals here at U of M. I still have the mixed meter rhythm of America stuck in my head.

So I’ve never seen this movie, but of course I knew a lot about it. Somehow, I knew that it had won 10 Academy Awards, more than any other musical, yet I missed the fact that it was a rewrite of Romeo and Juliet. Oh well, I found it out soon enough, and away with this two and a half hour movie I went.

I’ll say right upfront that the length was a slight problem for me. It’s not that I don’t like long movies – some of the longer movies I’ve seen have also been some of the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. But the problem with West Side Story is that its length feels enhanced by the inclusion of a few slow and honestly boring songs that just sap the pace for me. Maybe it’s a personal distaste for slow songs, but I could have done without the three or four Tony/Maria songs (except for Tonight).

Besides that, there’s not too many bad things to say about the movie. Granted, the movie depicts gangs who do group plies while they patrol their street, but you just have to get over the fact that these are not your average Greasers. It’s like Danny Zuko and the T-Birds met up with the seven brothers with seven brides, and they all gave and took a little. No, I wouldn’t be afraid of Riff or Baby John either, but it’s a musical adapted from Broadway, so you just have to deal with it.

And once you do you can enjoy the hell out of yourself. You’ll definitely recognize at least three songs from the movie that you’d heard before but didn’t know their origins. The music in this film, done by Leonard Bernstein, is fantastic and catchy. Even the music that is just background or scored, without words, is some great jazzy riffs that really carry the film.

The story, adapted from one of the greatest storytellers of all time, is of course solid. The plethora of characters each carve out their own niche and make themselves memorable in their own way. Despite being made in the less-than-progressive year of 1961, I feel as though the film at least tries to offer a balanced view of the racial tension that makes its plot.

The direction and cinematography is what really did it for me, though. I don’t know who did more work, Robert Wise or Jerome Robbins, but the end result is a beautiful collection of shots that combine stasis and playful angles. It made the movie at least three times more enjoyable than a dull, standard shot/reverse shot fare would have provided.

I really enjoyed this movie, though it might not be for people who have a hard time watching old hokey movies or for people who don’t enjoy musicals. The length could also serve as a problem, but since the entirety of the movie is filled with fantastic music and great performances, it feels justified when you finish the film. West Side Story deserves its status as one of the greatest musicals of all time, and I feel enriched for having finally seen it.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse


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