Tuesday, January 18, 2022

#PopCultureResolution - West Side Story

West Side Story (1961)

Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise 

Length: 152 minutes

Cast: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn

Release Date: October 18, 1961

Synopsis: A musical in which a modern day Romeo and Juliet are involved in New York street gangs. On the harsh streets of the upper west side, two gangs battle for control of the turf. The situation becomes complicated when a gang members falls in love with a rival's sister.


A new year means a new #PopCultureResolution! This year I am focusing on musicals for the movie part of this resolution. First up is the 1961 adaptation of West Side Story.

One of my favourite facts about West Side Story is that Montgomery Clift is ultimately responsible for its creation. He mentioned his idea of a Romeo and Juliet musical but with gangs set in New York to Jerome Robbins who couldn't get it out of his head and ended up creating it.

I had the experience of watching the 2021 adaptation before this one and I think that impacted my viewing experience. I anticipate that most people prefer whichever of the two they have seen first. This, I find, tends to be true with remakes/updates. 

Might as well get the negative stuff out of the way. The egregious use of brownface in this definitely sticks out and is problematic. This is something that the current remake makes sure to correct and is all the better for it. Representation matters and the lack of it stood out here.

There is plenty to love about this movie even with its issues. The actors all manage to charm. I adored Rita Moreno as Anita. She is incredible through the entire movie and it is easy to see why she won her Oscar for this role. Russ Tamblyn is a great Riff (even if I prefer Mike Faist's take on the character). Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer have some chemistry and provide a decent Maria and Tony. 

The choreography is obviously iconic. There are plenty of moments that seared themsleves in to pop culture and those were a delight to experience. Some of songs translated better in the remake (like the updated take on and placement of Cool) but others worked better in this version (like Tony and Maria singing Somewhere). 

While this may, at times, seem outdated it is certainly worth the watch. It would pair nicely with the updated remake as a double feature. The remake may have personally worked better for me, but there was still plenty I liked about this one. It's a fun, energetic, and surprisingly moving movie that makes you want to belt out a few of the songs yourself.

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