ahwell’s review published on Letterboxd:
West Side Story is a movie with sparkling colors, often dirty but always impressive sets, and dancing and singing galore. It was made during the height of both the broadway and the movie musical, and there's no wonder it won 10 Oscars. It's ending does not shy away from pain and sadness, unlike many Hollywood movies of the day, and indeed, it's one of the least "feel good" best picture winners that I've seen, especially from this time period.
Long before I watched the movie, I have always loved the music to it. Leonard Bernstein is one of my favorite American classical composers and conductors. His Chichester Psalms, symphonies, and so much more make for some of the most exciting and groundbreaking American music out there. On top of that, he scored several movies, and made maybe his masterpiece in writing the score for West Side Story.
Bernstein truly wrote one of the greatest scores in history here. Not just the song numbers themselves (which are still ridiculously entertaining), but the actual motifs and harmonies he layers in. West Side Story has it's own unique sound, and that's because Bernstein sets up both harmonic and rhythmic themes/motifs that reoccur and often represent characters or ideas in the musical. And the motifs themselves are memorable... so whether or not the story is good (which it still is!) the best thing about West Side Story will always be the music for me.
That said, god damn the choreography and visuals for the song numbers themselves were good. The dance at the gym, as well as the opening scene, had some wonderful visuals. My personal favorite song here was the "Tonight Quintet"... it's the only scene in the movie that gave me chills, just because of how energetic and anticipatory it is. The song switches shots between multiple different characters and places, building up to a frenzy of emotion and power. It's amazing.
I wonder if certain small things might have been tweaked to make this an utter masterpiece. In retrospect, these are all customs of this period in filmmaking (and indeed, writing in general) so they're hardly complaints at all. For some reason, these tropes stick out to me more in West Side Story than in, say Singin' in the Rain or The Sound of Music, but maybe that's just because this is set in the slums of New York City, so I expect it to be darker and grittier.
Either way, I think overall West Side Story is brilliant. I'd definitely watch it again, especially considering how much I already love the music, and I'm so happy to have visited it now. A classic for sure!