West Side Story (1961) – Movie Review

Time to be intimidating…
Hey everybody, welcome to Mainely Movies.
Today I’m gonna be talking about the 1961
musical romantic drama: West Side Story.
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West Side Story stars Natalie Wood, Richard
Beymer, and Rita Moreno and was directed by
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.
It tells the story of teenagers Maria and
Tony, whose love is forbidden because they
come from rivalrous (and highly musical) gangs.
West Side Story was one of the first movies
that I knew was a classic film, even as a
really young kid.
At the time, I hadn’t seen it and honestly
didn’t know anything about the movie itself.
And it’s not like there was anybody I was
close to who really liked the film or ever
even talked about it.
Back then, I certainly didn’t have my finger
on the pulse of cinema, so I’m honestly
not sure why I knew this movie’s name or
the fact that it

was so revered.
I suspect its prevalence in pop culture might’ve
had a hand in it, but for whatever reason,
this was one of the first movies I put on
my mental ‘I have to watch that someday’
Growing up, I had unknowingly seen pieces
of the movie on tv and I knew quite a few
of the songs without realizing their origin,
but it wasn’t until probably my freshman
year of high school that I finally sat down
to watch the film in its entirety.
I’ve said this before in past reviews, but
for anybody who’s new here, I think it’s
important to provide a little context.
I am not a big musical person.
I’ll watch them and there are some that
I genuinely enjoy, but it’s really not a
genre for me.
I especially have a hard time with the live-action
musicals that are full of big, showy dance
I also am not really a big William Shakespeare
So, with West Side Story being a very theatrical
musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, you’d
think this film would be absolute torture
for me.
But surprisingly, it’s not.
At least not absolute torture.
Believe it or not, the things that I typically
find the most frustrating about golden age
and post-golden age musicals are actually
the things I think I enjoy the most about
West Side Story: the musical elements.
Again, even as somebody who’s not into this
genre, the songs here are undeniably iconic.
Like I mentioned before, I actually knew a
lot of the songs before I ever saw the movie,
not realizing that they were from the movie.
Just in general, I have a tendency to like
faster songs.
So, I’ve never been a big fan of any of
Tony’s ballads, but songs like America and
I Feel Pretty have always stood out for me.
I also like the jazzier numbers like Jet Song
and Cool.
Speaking of jazzy, the score is also really
memorable, especially during the largely dialogue-free
prologue where it’s relied upon to sonically
introduce us to the rivalry between the Jets
and the Sharks.
Characters randomly breaking out into song
during live-action musicals has always been
a bit eye-roll inducing for me, but even more
eye-rolling is random, synchronized dance
Now I’ll admit, West Side Story always starts
off that way for me.
I don’t watch it very frequently, so I always
forget just how theatrical and ballet-influenced
the dancing is and it does usually take me
a song or two to get used to it.
The snapping prologue is iconic, but it’s
goofy as hell and the Jets and Sharks have
got to be the least intimidating gangs ever.
But in spite of the ridiculous, balletic dance
fighting and plethora of seemingly restrictively
tight pants, I’ve got to say that the choreography
is extremely impressive.
The moves that these people do throughout,
especially all the crazy stuff they do with
their knees during Cool, is unbelievable.
For me though, it’s really those wide-angle
crane shots during some of the songs, when
we’re able to get a sense of how big and
involved of a production this really was.
As with many musical films, West Side Story
is an adaptation of a Broadway musical of
the same name.
And while that Broadway-style production works
fairly well for the musical numbers, the film
as a whole is far too stagey.
I realize that was probably an intentional
stylistic choice and I’m sure it works for
some people, but I’m not one of them.
If I wanted to watch the Broadway musical,
I’d watch the Broadway musical.
But instead, I’m watching a movie.
Yet, apart from a few cinematic scene transitions,
this movie’s basically just a nice recording
of the stage play.
Now, that’s not a knock on the cinematography
– that aspect is really strong.
It’s just that the staging and reactions
and movements are awkward for a movie.
I mean, after every musical number, everybody
freezes and holds their position, almost as
if the audience should be applauding.
I just think an adaptation like this would’ve
been a little more reasonable if it hadn’t
stuck so closely to the stage production.
I mentioned before that it’s usually the
musical elements of a musical that frustrate
me, so I tend to focus in on the story and
characters as a way of getting through.
Unfortunately, the story of West Side Story
is one of its weakest aspects.
This is very much an adaptation of Romeo and
Juliet and while that basic story’s fine,
it does have its inherent flaws.
West Side Story mixes things up by transposing
the Shakespearean tale to then-modern day
New York City and incorporating themes of
racial tension, prejudice, and gang violence.
In some ways, those thematic elements work
due to their seemingly perpetual relevancy,
but the presentation is all very on-the-nose
in an afterschool special kind of way.
But the biggest problem with this story lies
with its central romance.
Despite being a mind-numbing two and a half
hours long, the story itself is extremely
rushed, so the supersonic progression of the
love-at-first-sight romance is eye-rolling.
Because of the lack of relationship depth,
the romance comes across as cloying and sappy,
making our two lead characters almost unbearably
dull and one-note after they meet.
Other more interesting characters like Anita
and Bernardo help to fill that void a bit,
but they’re not enough to save the story.
As a musical, West Side Story is pretty good.
The songs and choreography are stand out elements
that are enough to entertain even a musical-phobe
like myself.
But as a story and as a film, West Side Story
is very lacking.
Average, mediocre – they get at what this
movie is, but aren’t quite the right words
to describe it because even today, there are
few musicals that are like this one.
It’s just not a movie that can stand on
its own as a film, instead being something
more akin to an edited recording of the stage
musical it’s based on.
Melodrama and implausible characters abound
in this New York City-set, racially-charged
retelling of Romeo and Juliet.
It’s okay, but it’s definitely a movie
that’s kept afloat by the life preserver
that is it music.
Alright, let’s talk about the pros and cons.
Pro number one is definitely the music.
And this includes both the songs as well as
the score.
Most of the songs have now transcended the
film and the musical.
They’re a part of pop culture, so even people
who’ve never seen the film will be able
to recognize songs like I Feel Pretty, America,
and Maria.
Although I don’t like most of the ballads
(perhaps because they thematically align to
closely with the cloying and unbelievable
central romance), I still enjoy the musical
aspects of the film more than most other parts
of it.
The jazzy, orchestral score is also impressive,
especially when it’s used to emphasize and
tell the story of the action during both the
rumble and the snapping prologue.
The second pro is the choreography.
While I’ll admit that I’m always a little
taken aback by just how theatrically-presented
it is at first, it doesn’t take too long
before I’m used to the gang members jeté-ing
around and doing other overly-balletic moves.
It’s goofy, but once you accept it, you’re
able to see the full scope of the production.
It’s frequently impressive even when only
a few characters are dancing, but when you’ve
got a wide overhead shot of 25 gang members
leaping around, it’s pretty remarkable.
On the con side, the biggest issue is the
In some ways, this could seem like a ridiculous
After all, West Side Story is based on the
Broadway musical of the same name, so of course
it’s going to feel like a play.
And like I said in the pros, that very stage-like
production and choreography works well during
the dance numbers.
Unfortunately, everything else is also presented
in an equally heightened and theatrical way
that takes away from the story.
Rather than feeling like an adaptation of
the play made for the screen, it just ends
up feeling more like a recording of the stage
Con number two is the story, most notably
the central romance.
Now, West Side Story is obviously an adaptation
of Romeo and Juliet, so some of the story
blame certainly falls to William Shakespeare,
but the rushed and cloying nature of Tony
and Maria’s relationship prevents the grounded
relatability that’s necessary to give their
romance any credence.
Love at first sight is certainly not a new
trope, but this film hinges on our belief
in their love and there’s simply no foundation
or depth to it.
It’s repetitive and melodramatically saccharine
to the point of boredom.
Before I give you my rating and recommendations,
I want to remind you that if you’re interested
in buying West Side Story or any of the films
I mentioned today, I do have affiliate links
for all of them in the description below.
I get a small commission from anything you
buy using one of my links, so I’d really appreciate
if you’d use them if you’re in the market
for any of these movies.
I’m gonna give West Side Story 3 out of
5 paws.
It’s a film full of iconic music and moments,
so its widespread acclaim and influence is
As a musical, it’s solid with some great
songs and choreography, but its rushed story
and other non-musical aspects drag it down
as a film.
I would recommend West Side Story to fans
of Broadway musicals.
This might sound obvious given that this movie’s
based on one, but it’s a recommendation
that’s even more relevant than usual considering
just how stagey this film adaptation really
Aside from some nice cinematography, this
might as well have been a recording of the
stage play.
People who don’t like overly theatrical
musicals may have a tough time keeping their
eyes from rolling, but I’d still suggest
that almost anybody give this a watch at least
once, if only because of its iconic nature
and cultural prevalence.
If you liked West Side Story, I would recommend
It’s another 50s-set musical about teenagers
and the love between two people from very
different backgrounds.
It’s also got some incredibly iconic and
recognizable songs, however it is a bit more
upbeat and glossy than West Side Story.
If you liked the goofiness and incredulity
of the Jets and Sharks, you’ve got to watch
The Warriors.
It’s not a musical, but is another New York
City-set film centered around a turf war among
fairly ludicrous and stylized street gangs.
And if you just want some more West Side Story,
you might want to watch Steven Spielberg’s
2021 adaptation.
It obviously follows the same basic story,
but make some adjustments which heighten not
only the credibility of the story, but also
its cultural representation.
Alright, a couple questions for you guys.
Number one: Have you seen West Side Story?
If so, what’d you think of it?
And number two: What’s your favorite Broadway
Be sure to leave your answers in the comments
below so we can get a discussion going.
Alright, so if you got some enjoyment, insight,
or information out of this review, I’d appreciate
it if you’d hit that like button.
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Till next time, this has been Alyssa with
Mainely Movies: The way life should be.

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