Two youngsters from rival New York City gangs fall in love, but tensions between their respective friends build toward tragedy.

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Writers: Ernest Lehman, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, William Shakespeare
Staring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, Goerge Chakiris, Simon Oakland
Where To Watch: Amazon Rental
Release Date: October 18, 1961

So here is the think about Romeo & Juliet. They are stupid, stupid people. Sure they are a literary couple forever etched into time and society’s natural intelligence. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s dive into arguably the most famous adaptations of the Shakespeare play, West Side Story.

Taking place in the streets of New York, two rival gangs are vying for supremacy and respect in the neighborhood. The heavily Italian and whit Jets, let by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) are pinned up on the encroaching Latino Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). In order to break the tension they have for one another, they agree to have a rumble underneath the bridge to try and solve their differences. Winner takes control of the streets.

Riff tries to bring in his old friend and old gang member Tony (Richard Beymer) back to help the Jets cause. Much to Riff’s chagrin, his enthusiasm to conquer the Sharks ultimately backfires. Tony attends a dance were the Jets and Sharks are mingling, and cue the fireworks. Everything is fades away from the frame when Tony sees Maria (Natalie Wood) for the first time. Maria, a young, optimistic and spunky women falls head of heels for Tony and from there it is curtains in terms of rationality for the pair. Maria and Tony confess their love for one another and the blinders are activated.

Maria asks Tony to do everything he can to stop the rumble for she doesn’t want harm coming to her brother, Bernardo. Tony promises to do everything that he can. Following the tails of themes of Romeo & Juliet, tragedy befalls the two lovers and the strings of family bonds are pulled as taut they can.

The plot of West Side Story is formulaic to those who know Romeo & Juliet, but you are not watching this movie for the story. West Side Story flourishes when it is NOT focused on the two main characters. West Side Story is at its best when Bernardo and Riff are going after each other and when the Jets and Sharks are dancing out their distain. The opening scene is rivaled only by La La Land (2016) in terms of musical movie introduction. The Jets “Cool” is a banger and everyone has heard of “America” even if they don’t know it.

Now the song that everyone praises this West Side Story for is “Maria”, but I am here to tell you that everyone is crazy. Here is my take, a take that should be accepted as the truth. Tony is the worst part of West Side Story, and it is not particularity close.

One can argue that the immediate lust and love Maria and Tony share upon first glance is allowed in the fanaticism of a theatrical musical experience. Their bliss is meant to give the audience hope that true, passionate love can bypass any family or societal restrictions and hardships. Unfortunately this idealist dreams are not possible. The tragedy and death that befalls both the Sharks and Jets, Maria and Tony, and everyone in between, is emblematic of how nothing can survive the prejudices and cemented societal struggles. Not even true love.

Now bringing this back around to Tony; I never every bought into Tony. I never bought into Richard Beymer. Every single actor in this movie is on a different level that Beymer. Natalie Wood is unbelievably beautiful and and loveable as Maria. Her entire youthful experience dominates the screen while Tony’s stupid smile is just…there. Whenever the two were on screen together, it is impossible to not have your eye gravitate towards Natalie Wood. This is the big problem with West Side Story. I do not buy the all-conquering love that Maria and Tony are supposed to have because of the performance and Beymer. It makes the tragedy at the end not a gut punch, but more of a love tap.

Speaking for the rest of the cast, they are all standouts. All praise should be heaped on Natalie Wood for Maria. Her sister-in-law Anita is played by Rita Moreno and she also chews up the screen. Moreno benefits from great dialogue. Anita talks shit to everyone, even Bernando, and Moreno matched that confident talk with a confident performance. Speaking of Bernardo, George Chakiris made this man a dream for the ladies. His easy eyes are at their best when he is acting directly off of Riff, who is played by Russ Tamblyn. These who men had the best chemistry of anyone in the movie. They make this must watch.

Sometimes I love my opinions, which are 60 years after the movie’s release, are the same of those movie lovers and critics at the time.

West Side Story won 10 Oscars at the 1962 Academy Awards: Best Art-Direction-Set Decoration (Color), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress (10). The only award that it did not win was the Best Adapted Screenplay.

The two acting awards that were won? George Chakiris for Bernardo and Rita Moreno for Anita. If you were to pick any two from West Side Story to get accolades, it would be this pair.

In terms of all the technical awards West Side Story took home, it is impossible to argue that any of those accolades are improperly awarded. The propulsion, color, choreography and creativity that went into pulling West Side Story off is incredible. The color pallets at the dance are vibrant. The costumes are stylish and could be pulled off even now. The editing and completion of the crazy dance set pieces is inspiring for its time. The fact that West Side Story and Singin’ In The Rain (1952) both happened and both are as good as they are does make me yearn for a time when more movies went all-out in terms of ambition and creativity with their genre.

West Side Story is a must-watch for any musical fan. It is rightfully recognized for its impact and lasting legacy. Steven Spielberg has a lot to live up to with his remake attempt in December.

STANKO RATING: B+ (4.0/5 Stars)


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