#8 “West Side Story”
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Screenplay: Ernest Lehman
Music: Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim
Stars: Natalie Wood, Russ Tamblyn , Rita Moreno , Richard Beymer, George Chakiris
Original Release Date: 26 Dec 1961
Oscars: 10 (Picture, Director, Supporting Actor – George Chakiris, Supporting Actress – Rita Moreno, Cinematography, Set Design, Costume, Sound, Film Editing, Musical Score) One other nomination
Critics and Users
Rotten Tomatoes: 94% Berardinelli: 3.5 stars
Metacritic: n/a Ebert: 4 stars
IMDB Top 250: n/a
West Side Story is film of deep sentimental value to me. My first exposure to it (although I did not know it at the time) was in 1971 when Alice Cooper covered part of “The Jet Song” on the album School’s Out (Gutter Cats vs. The Jets) . I watched it for the first time on the recommendation of my high school music teacher Mike Bergauer. I instantly loved it. The music was nothing like I have ever heard. Discordant, yet still melodic. The lyrics by Sondheim were brilliant and of course, the dance.
Later in high school, I had the opportunity to play in the orchestra and we performed it 10 times in March of 1983. It was one of the great experiences of my life. Since then, I have revered this film for its originality, choreography, melodrama, groundbreaking music and breathtaking dance.
The scene known as “Quintet” – commonly referred to as Tonight – speaks to West Side’s greatness. In this scene, the music changes time signature every bar for most of the song. The Jets, The Sharks, Tony, Maria and Anita all sing of what they want from Tonight. Its a song with utterly unique music that foreshadows disaster!
For the most part, the cast is full of unknowns, gymnasts and dancers who never appeared in more than a couple of films after this, if any at all. Rita Moreno and Natalie Wood both had storied careers but for the most part, the cast of West Side Story were at the time all film rookies.
The plot is simple and part of our culture. Loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, it tells the tale of two rival gangs, the American White teens in The Jets, led by the fearless Riff. He took over the gang after his lifelong buddy Tony ‘retired’ and took a straight job. Their rival is the Puerto Rican teens The Sharks, led by the smooth talking Bernardo.
One night, at the ill-fated Dance at the Gym, Tony meets and instantly falls in love with the sheltered, doe-eyed Maria, Bernardo’s sister. I need not explain the plot further because you either know it or you need to see it.
What makes West Side special is its timelessness. The themes of racism, young forbidden love, gang violence and distrust of police are as relevant today as they were in 1961. Perhaps even more so. Take away the words like “daddy-o” and this film could be dropped into 2014. The only thing that binds the Jets and the Sharks is the dislike of authority and their sense of hopelessness. These themes are seen very day today.
The legendary Jerome Robbins is responsible for the leading edge choreography in “Cool” and “America, which is a as much acrobatics and dance. I never tire of it.
West Side Story is a movie that perhaps I love more than I should. To me, this is a film that transcends the medium and has become part of my life, my memories.
Graziella: “I and Velma aint dumb! Are we, Velma?”
Elvis Presley was Jerome Robbins first choice for Tony.
In the movie, the order of the songs “Gee Officer Krupke” and “Cool” are reversed from the stage show as the director wanted the movie to constantly build tension.