West Side Story (1961)



*. It seems almost anachronistic. It was 1961, and the glory days of the American musical were, if not over, surely on the wane. For whatever reason, audiences just couldn’t buy characters breaking into song-and-dance at the drop of a hat any more.
*. And it was flagrantly anachronistic. In 1961 urban America clearly had big problems, problems that this movie almost seemed to mock. Surely the producers couldn’t be serious? Racism, violence, inner city crime . . . as ballet?
*. Hence the objection that a lot of people have to it, especially today. It’s unrealistic. And not just unrealistic — since all musicals are unrealistic almost by definition — but a deliberate slap at realism through its packaging of a gritty social “message.” Dancing gangs? Wasn’t this the stuff of camp?
*. And yet, in 1976 an essay by Nik Cohn appeared in New York Magazine, “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night,” reporting on New York’s disco-era gang scene. What did these young ethnic gang-bangers do on Saturday night? They danced.
*. The story was pure fiction, but fooled some people. It shouldn’t have. What was the story Cohn told, after all, but a re-warmed version of West Side Story? The hero Vincent meets a girl at a dance, gets involved with guns and violence, etc. “It was just like a movie,” Cohn tells us. Well, obviously. And we’d all seen it. And we’d all watch it again in 1977 when it was made into Saturday Night Fever. And we’d watch it again in 1996 in Romeo + Juliet.
*. So how silly is West Side Story? It seems to me to be pretty silly, mainly because I just can’t see how anyone involved in it could have taken it seriously. In 1961 some people did, though Pauline Kael called it out as “hokum.” But even if you can’t take it seriously, I’m not sure if that’s a problem, either with the film or with me.
*. It’s almost universally agreed that it works much better on stage. In part this may be due to the fact that Sondheim had to pasteurize some of his lyrics, but I think it’s mainly due to the fact that the best parts are so physical. How can you not start snapping your fingers or tapping your feet to numbers like the “Jet Song” and “America.”


*. But those are both in the early going. This is a very long movie. I think it’s much too long (152 minutes) and the final forty minutes drag. There are no good songs after the intermission. I find most musicals are front loaded in this way, and I’m not sure why. Apparently in this particular case producer-director Robert Wise reordered some of the songs, advancing some of the more upbeat numbers so the movie would get progressively darker. Progressively duller too.
*. The big deal about this film at the time is that some of it was filmed on location. But I emphasize some of it. I don’t think all that much was, relative to the total length. Most of it looks very stagey and artificial to me.
*. That anti-realistic air makes the threatened rape of Anita all the more disturbing. Like the actual locations, it seems jarring. Reality in such a movie appears out of place.
*. I don’t know if Richard Beymer is “a lump” (David Thomson). He wanted to play the role rougher but was overruled by Wise. He’s even prettier than Natalie Wood, and his teeth bother me more than any actor before Tom Cruise. But it’s a horrible part. He’s just such a drip.
*. A story of racial strife. But are there any Black guys in the neighbourhood? Yes, one. He’s at the dance, doing his own thing standing by the entrance. He seems out of place too.
*. It was the first film to win a Best Director Oscar for two directors (Robert Wise and choreographer Jerome Robbins). This would not happen again until 46 years later, when Joel Coen and Ethan Coen shared the award for No Country for Old Men (2007). Neither Wise nor Robbins deserved it. By this point in his career Wise was only picking up a paycheque, and he seemed to have no feeling for the material. Meanwhile, the dance numbers were notoriously grueling, and they are quite well done, but they don’t stand out as great filmmaking.
*. I like the closing titles (by Saul Bass, naturally), but (like everything else in the movie) they roll for too long. Also: why are Bernstein and Sondheim credited twice for music and lyrics? I guess once for the film and then again for the musical, but that seems redundant.
*. I remember we had the LP of the musical in our house when I was growing up. The songs were a part of American culture at the time, and perhaps they still are, but far less so. You have to wonder what the fate of a film like this will be. A historical artefact, or a colourful fantasy like The Wizard of Oz? And what effect will Stephen Spielberg’s 2021 production have on that legacy? One prophecy: the dancing Jets and Sharks will always be with us, or at least remain long after Tony and Maria are forgotten.


12 thoughts on “West Side Story (1961)

      1. fragglerocking

        Ah man it was! South Pacific, Oklahoma, Sound of Music (of course) The King and I and my fave, Carousel. It was all very magical to a small girl. Rogers and Hammerstein, great guys!

      2. Alex Good Post author

        Carousel is the only one of those I don’t know. I wonder how well known any of that stuff is today. I was singing some lines from Oklahoma a few months ago and nobody I was with knew where it was from, or had heard of Oklahoma when I told them.

      1. tensecondsfromnow

        Big time,they’re punch your coupon in given a chance.

        West Side Story, despite being in color, hasn’t quite stood up as a modern classic due to length and dull leads; maybe the remake will help….the music is great though…

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    Guys and Dolls and West Side Story will always have a place in my heart. Neither of the films are particularly life affirming, but the music – and the actual stage productions – is/are superb. Good times.


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