Another film that I am torn about. If you were to ask me what my favourite musical is, I would definitely consider West Side Story, however it’s not my favourite film musical. That’s not to say I don’t like it, I really do, but it has a few faults that stop it getting a higher position on the list.
I will start with the bad. The film is dated. Very dated. Although the music and dancing are brilliant, there are times (when the film is in ‘cool’ mode) that just seem irrelevant today. I think it is a general rule that if musical films are set in the era that they are made they can age very badly, as the general idea of a musical with characters bursting into song needs to be done with some irony. The other negative I have is with Richard Beymer’s portrayal of Tony. I realise that in the Shakespeare play, the character of Romeo is a little soft, but in ‘West Side Story’ the character of Tony is meant to be a former gang leader, and I just don’t buy it, he is just so wet.
And now the positive, and there is lots to say: firstly the music. How anyone cannot just love the wonderful songs by Bernstein is hard to believe. The songs are beautiful, witty and perfectly performed. ‘Tonight’ is a gorgeous love song, performed as both a duet and as a quintet later in the film, ‘Jet Song’ is a fun-packed and intense gang song that makes you know that the film is going to not be like other musicals, but the best moment is the wonderful ‘America’. It is truly one of the best song and dance numbers in any musical ever made.
There are some great performances in this film. George Chakiris is great as Bernardo, and although I would have given the supporting Oscar to Montgomery Clift in ‘Judgement at Nuremburg’, Chakiris’ performance is one of the most memorable Supporting Actor wins that I have seen. He is feisty, passionate and truly convincing as the leader of the Sharks. It is, however, Rita Moreno who steals the show as Anita. The screen really does come alive whenever she is on screen, and her performance in the song ‘America’ is truly fantastic.
It is a cinematographic delight as well. Every scene and shot and close up rivals the most epic of films, and not many films bring the streets of the darker areas of New York to life as much as this one does.
It’s a shame that there are a few faults with this film, and it’s probably the only Oscar winner that I think would be successful if it were remade today with the right director and cast, of course. However, despite the faults, ‘West Side Story’ is one of the most important and beautiful musicals ever made, and will always be rightly regarded as a classic.