Some classic films have gotten no critical acclaim on their release; others have gotten huge critical success yet have fallen in popularity in recent days. One such is West Side Story. Resulting in one of the profoundest films of all time, West Side Story gathered legends of the present and future from all genres: famed director Robert Wise (Sound of Music) and legendary Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins** at the helm, prolific composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein with his iconic score, and Stephen Sondheim with the lyrics in his big break. Though it has fallen in popularity and ratings in the past years, Robbin’s memorable characters of Tony, Maria, and the teenage gangs of Manhattan merging with notable dance sequences offer a poignant treat for mature audiences, fans of musicals or not.
With the united, recurring finger snaps put to Bernstein’s blaring and catchy score in a nine-minute prologue, we meet two rival teen gangs, the Puerto Rican Jets and the Caucasian Sharks, and, distinguished by the keen cinematography, their two dear and beloved leaders, Bernardo (George Chakiris) and Riff (Russ Tamblyn), respectively. Furthermore in this scene, we witness a brawl between the fuming gangs rendered in spectacular choreography, setting the plot and subsequently building a foundation for future elements towards the frightful “Rumble,” an all-out war between those gangs. Next, the Jets arrive at a Shark’s dance to intimidate the Sharks, but they involuntarily strike a spark between two young attendees, Maria (Natalie Wood), sister to Sharks chief Bernard, and Tony (Richard Beymer), best friend of the Jet’s Riff, resulting into a “love at first sight” against family and racial differences.
This film, a possible PG-13 in today’s principles, has not much in question regarding negative content but rather in its material on sex and race that borders offensive. A spin-off from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it deals with the deep racial issues between the Puerto Ricans and covetous Jets, emphasized by strong hostility, various, sharp and inventive racial slurs, suggestive comments and mild swears. Just before the “A Boy Like That” number, the two main characters wake up together in bed, implying a sexual interaction, and in a building of tension, Anita, Bernardo’s sister (Rita Moreno), is almost raped by the Jets. Also, as mentioned before, darkness hangs over the film throughout, especially during the second half.
Effortlessly, Wise, Robbins and Bernstein smoothed the thick line between the light and depressing. Establishing the standard for modern film-musicals, West Side Story won George Chakiris and Rita Moreno Oscars (justly), beginning Moreno’s journey to the EGOT***. However, the nominations for lead actor and actress were noticeably missing. Although not diverting, Richard Beymer appears tired and drunk throughout while Natalie Wood’s mock accent has been criticized duly as discriminatory. Also, because of Hollywood censors, the creators unfortunately could not include the lover’s suicides as depicted in Romeo and Juliet. But taking that out as a legitimate excuse, West Side Story formed strong characters that left me pensive.
I like how the creators make you witness both sides of the episode. First you root for the Jets, then the Sharks, then both, agonizing like a lesser character once saying: “Why do you kids live like there's a war on? When do you kids stop? You make this world lousy!” West Side Story, hits deep with the significant characters yet doesn’t bother much about unimportant ones. The Honorary Oscar-winning choreography isn’t just a show-off of the dancer’s techniques; in my favorite number, “Cool,” an exhilarating release after the death of the Jet’s leader that depicts their pain and agony through grunts and shouts, the sharp choreography enhances their emotions. Let’s just hope that Robbin’s work of genius in West Side Story hopefully may procure its ancient acclaim with a re-release someday.