West Side Story has been touted as one of the best musicals of our time. It won ten Academy Awards, including two supporting acting trophies, one of which went to Rita Moreno, a prolific and high profile Puerto Rican actress, the only Puerto Rican actress in the film to have a major speaking part. Despite those wins, West Side Story was just boring. Not only that, the film was noisy, disjointed, and altogether a mess.
Maria (Natalie Wood) wants love and wants to be as seductive as Anita (Moreno), her brother’s girlfriend. Her brother, Bernado (George Chakiris), is the leader of a Puerto Rican gang in New York called the Sharks. The opposing gang, the Jets, is led by Tony (Richard Beymer) and Riff (Russ Tamblyn). The two groups fight about space and how the Jets believe that the Sharks are out to steal their turf. Tony, though he’s the leader of the Jets, has his own job. He is trying to stay away from the childishness by growing up.
At a community dance, Tony and Maria meet and it’s immediately love at first sight. Bernardo and Anita think Maria needs to go out and find someone of “her own kind” to fall in love with. Tony and Maria defy these odds and keep seeing each other while the Jets and Sharks propose a rumble. The rumble is supposed to be the last fight, a fight to see who will gain the upper hand in their war. Tony makes sure to get the rumble to be weapon-free but at the last minute, they switch to weapons. Bernardo and Riff are killed.
In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, Tony and Maria solidify their relationship only to have Tony be killed by one of the Sharks. Maria finally knows what it’s like to hate because of Tony and Bernardo’s deaths.
I appreciate what Jerome Robbins was trying to do. In 1961, the U.S. was on the cusp of civil unrest and more and more rights were being fought over including the Civil Rights Movement. For a film that was attempting to give the Puerto Rican’s a voice, it did so in all the wrong ways. As stated before, Moreno is the only Puerto Rican actress with a major speaking role. Chakiris and Wood were both in brown face and they had obvious fake accents. Even Leonard Bernstein, the writer of the musical numbers, shirked off the Puerto Rican influence and used an exclusively “pan-Latin” soundtrack to back the Sharks instead of sounds from Puerto Rico.
Besides West Side Story’s racism, the film was just noisy. The Sharks were noisy, the Jets were noisy, and the music was cluttered. The sound design did not do the film any favors. Every character, especially Bernardo, Anita, and Riff, sound like they’re yelling their lines. The singing, while mostly dubbed, sounds more like yelling than anything musical at all. Because of this, many aspects of the film are lost in the noise which makes it difficult to follow in some aspects. For instance, it’s never fully explained why there even is a gang war in the first place. The characters, besides Tony, Bernardo, Riff, Maria, and Anita, aren’t even properly addressed by name.
Overall, West Side Story simply isn’t anything to write home about. While it is a rather solid Romeo and Juliet adaptation, as a musical and a film, it didn’t do anything for me.
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