West Side Story Review

(3.5 STARS)

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a sucker for musicals. The silly songs and choreography—on top of typically outstanding technical—generally sweep me up despite the inherent cheesiness of these affairs. Actually, the cheesier the better. I guess that’s why I enjoyed West Side Story so much. It’s beyond cheesy, but the music is so damn good that you can’t help but feel a strong connection to the film’s star-crossed lovers.

In one New York City neighborhood, two rival gangs—the Jets and the Sharks—rule the streets. The two groups hate each other intensely, despite only differing in race (the Jets are white, the Sharks are Puerto Rican). At a dance one evening, a Jet named Tony (Richard Beymer) and a Shark member’s sister named Maria (Natalie Wood) fall in love at first sight. But it’s a forbidden love because of the bad blood between the two factions, but Tony and Maria are hopeful they can one day run away together and be happy. The tensions just continue to boil, however, until it’s decided on to brawl for control of the streets once and for all, but the deadly results of that battle just threaten Tony and Maria’s happiness even more.

Most would agree that West Side Story the musical is one of the best ever. The songs (“Somewhere”, “Tonight”, “In America”, etc.) are timeless, and the story is really strong as well. It’s a modern day (well, not really modern anymore) Romeo and Juliet with dancing street toughs. Does it get any better than that?

The acting isn’t great, which is a shame. A couple good performances could have made the cringe-inducing moments a little more tolerable. The supporting work is fine. George Chakiris won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work as Bernardo, the head Shark. His work is good, but doesn’t quite compare to that of Rita Moreno, his on-screen sister. She’s a firecracker—full of energy and unafraid to wear her emotions on her sleeve.

The two leads—Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood—are a less successful. Their long loving looks in the eye are just silly. It takes a lot to really sell love in the movies—especially what’s supposed to be the greatest love of all between these two. I just don’t think Beymer and Wood have it in them. Thankfully, their deficiencies don’t detract too much from the overall success of the film.

The film was a major Oscar success (winning ten awards including Best Picture in 1961), and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a gorgeous-looking piece of cinema and it’s got as strong an emotional component as any film from the era. But more than that, West Side Story is just a lot of fun. Its two and a half hours go by shockingly fast, and despite a few laughable moments (the dialogue-less frolic that opens the film, for example), it’s hard not to enjoy yourself.

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