Movie Review: West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961)

Movie Review: West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961)

October 01, 2021

The sort of couch footballers who watch matches on the TV in their tracksuits have always made me laugh. But that’s precisely what I should have worn when watching the ultimate cult musical, West Side Story, adapted from the equally famous Broadway musical: I had no idea how much on-screen energy lay in store for me. The two-and-a-half breakneck hours of somersaults, leaps, rolls and twirls danced to the driving beat of Leonard Bernstein’s music left me literally “breathless” – if I can be allowed to slip in a final homage to the late Jean Paul Belmondo, who would most certainly have raced four-at-a-time up one of outdoor fire escapes so emblematic of New York architecture!

Powered by this unbridled vitality, 1961’s West Side Story hasn’t aged in the slightest even though, sixty years later, Spielberg’s promising remake is looking to bring it up to date once more. And is likely to give us a well-timed injection of energy so we can forget about the long months of seclusion inflicted on us by COVID-19. If, to quote from Shakespeare, “All the world's a stage”, and “all the men and women merely players”, how can we imagine a life without spectacle?

And it is the tragic spectacle of two young lovers that is so magnificently brought to the screen in this song and dance version of Romeo and Juliet, located in New York’s Upper West Side. The delicately stylized zig-zagging wrought iron staircases depicted on the poster are every bit as romantic as the famous balcony. Tony (a one-time Jet) and Maria (sister of a Shark) proclaim their love to each other in the moving duet Tonight, heightened by their nuptial arabesques. Down below, among the gloom of brick and tarmac, two rival gangs are in conflict: the Jets and the Sharks, with Polish-Jewish and Puerto-Rican roots respectively. The neighbourhood is theirs: they rechristen the streets by tagging the walls with the name of their tribe. If only they have been able to come together to paint the giant black stencilled West Side Story holding up the fire escape stairs! Sadly, as with every tragedy, it is only death that brings reconciliation.

Death that is foreshadowed in the film’s first few minutes with a three-note whistling heralding the trouble to come. The sheer eloquence of the film means that you could almost do without the dialogue. Using a mixture of jazz, mambo, classical and traditional Jewish musical styles, the story unfurls in a riot of exuberant musical numbers. The band sometimes takes a backseat so that viewers can better hear Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, particularly in songs like America that denounce segregation and challenge the reality of the American dream. Only once does the music stop completely, during Maria’s spoken monologue. Without the notes, the scene is imbued with a sense of unease, making her grief at losing her brother and her lover even more poignant. I felt the same unease when the film finished, finding people too silent when they weren’t singing, filling the void with snatches of tunes still hovering around me. “Tonight, the world is full of light…”

But the spectacle would not be “complete” without Robbins’ incredible choreography that transfigures every movement and gesture. The film opens with the cast limbering up as they click their fingers in unison. The dancers need to be fully warmed up to deliver the non-stop steam of scenes of intimidation, threats, vengeance and seduction. You can only wonder how many takes were needed so that a fight scene, for instance, appears natural and totally in sync with the complex rhythms of the music. Dance provides a narrative visual line that is every bit as important as the music.

The cast are all skilled at acting, dancing and singing—except Nathalie Wood as Maria, whose singing voice is dubbed. We are particularly struck by the voice of Rita Moreno, the only Hispanic actress to play the role of the Puerto Rican Anita (unlike the other actors who play the Sharks), rolling her “r”s as emphatically as her friend Maria. Sixty years later, this great actress features in the new adaptation as the owner of Doc’s, the store that serves as an unofficial HQ for the rival gangs. Unlike her forebear, will she succeed in bringing peace to the troubled youngsters?

You can find out by taking a trip to the movies to see Spielberg’s West Side Story, slated for release in France on 8 December and the USA on 10 December. The sober black-and-white poster matches Joseph Caroff’s version (by far my favourite!), which fully embraces the spirit of the times and features a pictogram of a couple of dancers which also elegantly symbolizes the light-heartedness and cheer we are all eager to rediscover in our daily lives.