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USA 1961
Directed by
Robert Wise / Jerome Robbins
151 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

West Side Story

Although critics were divided when the Broadway play, a re-working of the Romeo and Juliet story, set in New York's West Side, opened in 1957, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbin's film stormed the Academy Awards in 1961, taking out ten Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, and is often cited as the "best musical ever made" which is a meaningless, if not flat-out inaccurate, assessment of the film's merits.

The original Broadway musical was commended for its tough realism in addressing the then hot topic of juvenile delinquency but whilst there is no quibbling with the quality of Wise's direction, Jerome Robbins' balletic choreography, Leonard Bernstein's symphonic score, Stephen Sondheim's lyrics or Boris Leven's production design in themselves, the incongruity between form and content fatally flaws the film, clearly more apparently so today than when it was released, a time when mainstream American films were still propagating a carefully sanitized view of the world. (Had Francis Ford Coppola mode directed this in Rumble Fish made it might have been wonderful).

Of course, soul, funk, rap and hip-hop were yet to be invented but passing off a bunch of now very gay looking young men in colour-coordinated casual wear as Hell's Kitchen hoodlums is not just trying but outright ridiculous. The film was also poorly cast with Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris (who won a Best Male Support Oscar!) having little screen presence let alone credibility as street kids. And the classically WASPish Natalie Wood may have had presence but is hardly believable as a Puerto Rican shopgirl. Only Rita Moreno as Anita, Maria's friend, delivers the right combination of skills and talent (Wood's singing was dubbed by the ever-present Marni Nixon).  The Bernstein/Sondheim songs live on but as a musical film West Side Story is hugely over-rated .

FYI: Trivia buffs will appreciate the appearance of John Astin of The Addams Family in a minor role.




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