The Girls (singing): I like to be in America, OK by me in America, everything free in America…
Bernardo (singing): For a small fee in America!
An updated version of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan, filled with songs and dances and with a white-American gang and a Puerto Rican gang, sounds like a dubious concoction, but it is a combination that works amazingly well! Although not flawless, if you love musicals, dancing, romance, tragedy, or just a good film then this is one to watch.
The story revolves around two gangs, the white American Jets led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Their rivalry is the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Montagues and Capulets and so it is this which moves the story along. Caught in the middle of this rivalry are the Romeo and Juliet of the story: Bernardo’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood), and ex- Jets member Tony (Richard Beymer). Their romance cuts through the gang rivalry, and it is both these stories that result in the bloody conclusion in the latter parts of the film. Everyone knows the story of Romeo and Juliet so it’s inevitable when you watch it you know the ending is not going to be happy, but it is tense nonetheless, and slightly different to the play!
For me, the music and dances make the film truly great and memorable. The opening sequence I found mesmerising as, using music and dance and minimal dialogue, the scene is set between the two gangs. Admittedly this may not be to everyone’s taste. My mum was unsure when she watched it (but she really is not a musicals fan) but she did come to enjoy the film as it went on and she did appreciate the artistry of it! The music and dance is so expressive, and captures the characteristics of the gangs and each character, as the Jets have a very American feel, whilst the Sharks are more Latin influenced. Although gang members and dancing appear like polar opposites, the film incorporates the two well, and if you enjoy dance then you will enjoy this film!
The songs themselves are another high point of the film, with many of them being widely known even to those who haven’t watched the film! My personal favourite is ‘America’ sung by the Puerto Ricans, mainly Bernardo and his girl Anita (Rita Moreno). It is a fantastic song with great dancing, but the lyrics are what I love most about it. They characterise aspects of the immigrant experience as Anita and the women proclaim the hopes and dreams for America, whilst Bernardo and the men counter these with the reality. Even if people don’t watch the film, for me, this song is one that needs to be listened to! Other well known songs in the film are ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Tonight’ (I prefer the ensemble version of ‘Tonight’ in the film rather than the duet) but I did also enjoy ‘Gee Officer Krupke’. It was memorable and amusing as well as being a pertinent commentary on delinquency. Many of the songs, and the film as a whole have relevant messages to them, as well as being entertaining, and it is this which makes the film such a classic, even today.
If I’m being honest, Maria and Tony, despite being the two main characters, were the weakest part of the film for me. I know both actors’ singing voices were dubbed, but that’s not the problem, I just never felt invested in them. I never really warmed to them, even though I did sympathise with them and their situation, I just never especially liked the characters. However, I’m not a person that especially loves romance stories so that could explain it! I enjoyed watching Bernardo and Anita much more, and all credit to Chakiris and Moreno for their stunning performances.
Overall, West Side Story is a must see film for musical lovers, romance lovers, and general film lovers! It was a truly ambitious piece of work, and many of the messages underlying the film and songs still resonate surprisingly powerfully today. The performances are all good, with some especially outstanding, and it is a film that will stay with you for a long time! The more I’ve rewatched the dances and songs after seeing the film, the more I love it, so I would undoubtedly recommend it to anyone (though with a proviso that you have to enjoy music/songs/dancing to some extent to appreciate the it)!