West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Artistic & Entertainment Value
* * *

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Tony (Richard Beymer), a former member of a white street gang, the Jets, falls in love with a Puerto Rican girl, Maria (Natalie Wood). Meanwhile, Tony's old friend, Riff (Russ Tambling), the leader of the Jets, and Maria's brother, Bernardo (George Chakiris), the leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang, are making plans to fight one another in order to settle, once and for all, which of them will control the neighborhood they unwillingly share.

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's musical West Side Story, which is based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, contains a number of accomplished dance sequences and several captivating songs, but many of its other scenes are either so lethargic or so clumsily realized that they allow the viewer's interest to waver.

The film's awkward and uninspired moments, in fact, severely detract from its quality. There are numerous incidents that are embarrassingly maudlin, others that are so watered down and bowdlerized they are just insipid, and still others that are unnecessarily didactic. A few sequences even include some character or another overtly preaching to the viewer about the evils of urban gangs or racial discrimination. As a result, much of the movie is, alternately, dull and uninteresting or bothersome and annoying.

Even the characterizations of the film's protagonists often fail to affect the moviegoer. For example, at least some of West Side Story's emotional impact is dependent upon its engendering in the viewer an awareness of its characters' roughness and of the violence that, consequently, pervades their lives. Sadly, the balletic, singing hoodlums of the movie are hardly fearsome individuals. They are entertaining to watch, but they simply do not arouse the emotions appropriate for the story the directors are telling. It is extremely unlikely that any person will be able to see these individuals as the brutal thugs they are supposed to be.

The performances of the actors do not help much either. Natalie Wood is lovely and has an air of sweet innocence, but her attempts at a Spanish accent are embarrassingly unsuccessful. Richard Beymer is, at best, forgettable, and both Russ Tambling and George Chakiris are little better. Rita Moreno, who plays Bernardo's girlfriend Anita, is, however, often pleasant to watch. She brings an abundance of energy to her role and demonstrates far greater talent as an actress than do the majority of her fellow cast members.

Fortunately, the movie does have a number of virtues which do, at least to some degree, compensate for its weaknesses. For one thing, the film is often inspired visually. Set among towering brick buildings washed with multicolored lights or in squalid apartments oozing a variety of daring hues, West Side Story is constantly enlivened by its innumerable intoxicating images. Instead of merely boring the viewer with an attempt to depict New York as it really is, the directors give life to a delightfully dreamlike, almost poetic cityscape that, by its kaleidoscopic beauty, considerably enhances the emotivity of the events occurring in it.

The songs and dances with which the film is punctuated are, however, even more joyous than is the vibrant world in which they are set. All are wonderfully choreographed, fabulously complicated, and strikingly beautiful. Moreover, several of these routines are suffused with tremendous energy or an exhilarating sense of excitement, while others make manifest the emotions of one or another character, whether that person is expressing his love, his sorrow, or his anger. There is hardly one such sequence that will not enthrall the viewer and allow him to immerse himself in the directors' fictional world.

Although its images and musical numbers do give West Side Story a considerable appeal, the movie's frequently tedious pacing, stiff performances, and overdone sermonizing make it far less enjoyable than it could have been.

Review by Keith Allen

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