West Side Story (1961)

(On TV, June 2018) I thought I knew West Side Story before watching it: A Romeo-and-Juliet adaptation taking place in the Latino communities of Manhattan, what more could it be? But as it turns out, the film is almost irresistibly engaging, with enough musical numbers to showcase the skills of the filmmakers and the cast. I put one the movie while doing other things, thinking that I wouldn’t want to watch it closely … and ended up sitting down to watch big chunks of the film. While Nathalie Wood gets top billing, Rita Moreno steals the show with “America”, a number that crystallizes the film’s respectable intention to tackle the immigrant experience in a relatively upbeat fashion. The diversity of numbers means that there’s something for everyone—you can have your “Maria” if you want, I’ll take “America” and “Gee, Officer Krupke” on repeat. The romanced portrait of early-sixties urban life is fascinating, and Robert Wise’s direction is often amazing in the way it choreographs the dancing and singing with cinematic qualities. But what fascinates me more about the film, and what provides its substance beyond its musical qualities, is its admirable willingness to engage with issues of immigration, integration and acceptance. There’s gang violence set to music as an engaging counterpoint, and the film feels intensely alive as it mixes violence with music and dance. While it may seem quaint today, it has aged far better than other more restrained movies of the time. The downer ending comes with the literary inspiration, but the best moments of West Side Story are exhilarating. 

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