West Side Story

AFI Rank: #41
Year Released:1961
Director: Robert Wise
Actors: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn

West Side Story is absolutely a classic musical. A retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1950s New York City, I was singing along to many of the songs without much trouble at all. They are well known songs, found in so much of our modern culture. Seeing this movie is an absolute must in order to understand a wealth of references in books, movies, and TV shows.

There are so many aspects to the story that stand out. The "local" gang is against the outsider Puerto Ricans - but it turns out that the locals are actually made up of Irish, Polish, and other immigrants which only a generation ago would have been the outsiders. Where most movies of this nature would be all-guys-all-the-time, the women in the story are as just as powerful, working in the sweatshop, striving to form a new life where their independence is valued.

Where other musicals of the time could be sickly-sweet, West Side Story tackles some important issues head-on. The characters lay out arguments about why they are misunderstood - and then turn the argument around to look at it from all angles. Amazingly, there's even a near-gang-rape of one of the female characters, showing how powerful the "not-us" mentality could get.

This definitely is a movie that you could watch repeatedly and see new subtleties in it each time. The way the characters relate to each other, how they change over time, and how they either listen to or ignore influences from others is well done.

It's surprising to me that for many of these actors this was their one shining moment on the screen. I would have thought many of these individuals would go on to star in numerous other movies. This seemed to have become a "perfect moment" where the cast worked well together.

If I had to look for one thing to single out as being less-than-perfect, it would be Russ Tamblyn's dubbed singing in his intro song. We start the movie knowing it's a musical. So we expect stellar singing. Russ is a fantastic dancer and gymnast - I'm still in awe at some of his movies - but his voice wasn't up to the standards the others set. So they brought in Tucker Smith to sing his lines - and even Smith's voice wasn't up to the challenge! If they were going to completely dub the song anyway, why couldn't they find the best singer possible to do that song? I wish a vocal coach had spent more time with Smith, so that the intro sets that pitch-perfect note that leads us into the rest of the magnificence.

Still, that is the only down side I could say about a must-watch film.

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