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WEST SIDE STORY, 1961
Movie Review

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WEST SIDE STORY MOVIE POSTER
WEST SIDE STORY, 1961
Movie Reviews

Directed by Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris.
Review by Jayvibha Vaidya



SYNOPSIS:

The classic tale of Romeo & Juliet re-told in 1950s New York. Two teenagers from rival gangs fall in love and must fight for their relationship against worn-out tradition and rising tensions, resulting in a life-changing event. WON 10 OSCARS – Best Picture, Actor in Supporting Role, Actress in a Lead Role, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Director, Editing, Music and Sound.

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REVIEW:

“They won’t let us be.”

Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers return in a timeless tale and this time they’re navigating their way through the harsh streets of New York City, struggling with tradition, new customs and the right to fit in. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story (based on the Broadway play based on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet) is about two rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, and their daily battle on the streets for pride and respect. When Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer) sees Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the Shark’s leader, it is love at first sight. But when loyalty to their respective groups is called into question, the lovers must choose between their families and their love.

Opening with a series of breath-taking aerial shots over New York the camera glides over water, buildings, and cluttered houses, finally swooping in on a playground where a group of boys stand. Meet the Jets. They’re cool, hip and tough. They snap their fingers and people get out of their way. Led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) they terrorize on the basketball court and show a general disrespect for property and space. They’re stopped by another group of boys. Meet the Sharks. They’re smooth, dangerous and angry. Led by Bernardo (George Chakiris), they defend the right to their side of the street. And together, they don’t mix very well. The turf war begins.

The film is well-deserving of its Oscar win in Cinematography as it is beautifully shot and edited. Utilizing a range of angles, the camera pans above the city to show the battlefield and slides in close to display the anger on young faces. The first half of the film is shot in bright daylight as the two gangs volley insults and jabs, enjoying their bravado. The second half of the film enters film-noir territory with shadows, rain-slicked streets and the minimal use of light. After two inexplicable deaths, their world becomes dark, lonely and isolated. The strategic use of a red light at key moments continues to signal the threat of danger as well as the passion that runs high.

Sets are tall and narrow; indicating space where one can either climb or fall but never spread out and breathe in this overcrowded city. This is why the kids are constantly climbing fences, scaling walls, jumping down fire escapes or hiding in narrow alleys. Simple touches such as a row of colour on a clothesline or posters lining a wall gives reason to why the gangs fight so hard for space in a city that is both dirty and beautiful.

Stellar performances from the entire cast bring the story to life as the audience roots for the ill-fated lovers while sympathizing with individual gang members. Natalie Wood as Maria is charming, sweet and beautiful. Richard Beymer as Tony is a leading man – dreamy, sensitive and endearing. But it’s the performances of Rita Moreno as Anita and George Chakiris as Bernardo that give the audience characters to relate to. Rita Moreno is spectacular, allowing Anita to be sharp and strong while vulnerable in her love for Bernardo. Her scenes when she is taunted by the Jets and when she confronts Maria about Tony are raw and emotional. George Chakiris manages to give an overbearing, overprotective character a crippling burden of responsibility and passion, in turn creating a character the audience feels deeply sad about losing. One wonders how much more heart-wrenching it would be if these two actors played the lead roles.

The singing and dancing in this film are legendary for the sheer effort required of all the performers. Choreographer Jerome Robbins worked his dancers to extremes and in turn created a new way of incorporating dance and narrative. Using sets, props and bodies, the dancers scale, fly, push and slam into each other and their surrounding environment. The fight between Riff and Tony is gorgeously choreographed as they roll, slide and flip in an energetic fight. The camera angles tilt and drop as the fight gets out of control. The framing of the dance sequences are terrific as each shot precisely displays background, actors, visual planes and angles. Each movement is sharp, fast and energetic like the emotions of these young individuals. The songs run the range of silly, (“I Feel Pretty”), sweet (“One Hand, One Heart”) and cheeky (“America”). Beautifully sung (a number of songs were dubbed by other singers) and well performed, the songs drive the story forward and heighten emotions. The song “Tonight” is intercut with Maria, Tony, Anita, the Jets and Sharks, creating anticipation and suspense about the fateful night.

West Side Story scored an Oscar win for Best Picture in 1962 not only for its songs and visual excellence, but also because it explored issues that fired the youth of New York in the 50s. The characters sing about broken homes, “Our mothers all are junkies/Our fathers all are drunks,” the immigrant experience, “Everything free in America/For a small fee in America,” and racist government authorities “You try keeping hoodlums in line and see what it does to you!” By exploring these issues in the light of an innocent and honest love, the film asks the audience to consider if love can indeed conquer heavy societal structures and family loyalty in a time when everyone is living “like there’s a war on.”

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