West Side Story ★★★½

"West Side Story" is too long, the first half moves too slowly, and the exuberant singing and dancing (and dance fighting, let's not forget the dance fighting) is at odds with its gritty setting and subject matter. The movie never quite reconciles these two things, and its reliance on cliches (Egads, that Irish cop is absolutely cartoonish and the Bronx accents are often caricatures) creates a sense of ridiculousness that almost undoes the entire enterprise. Also, the racial tension between the white and Puerto Rican gangs would be heightened if most of the so-called Puerto Ricans didn't look like white dudes wearing brown makeup.

However, I'll be damned if this thing didn't work despite all of these problems. For one thing, it masterfully captures the naive hopefulness of first love, when you thing that the problems of your world will simply dissolve in the face of your love. Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer seem almost unbelievably starry-eyed as the lovers from rival gangs, but Wood and Beymer sell it quite well and the chemistry between the two of them develops nicely as the film progresses, which gives the ending real emotional weight. Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris are great as the leaders of the gangs, and Rita Morena steals the entire movie when she belts out "America". Moreno is the film's best element, in fact. But Robert Wise's direction is steady if not all that flashy (though the cinematography is often stunning in its use of both location shooting and fantastic sets) and Jerome Robbins creates some amazing choreography to Stephen Sondheim's excellent songs. The strength of any musical lies in its songs, after all, and Sondheim delivers solidly here. "America", "I Feel Pretty" and, especially, the "Tonight" reprise are all magnificent, stirring tunes and the story itself, based loosely on Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is, of course, captivating.

Great characters, great choreography, a solid story, excellent songs and some fine technical elements prove more than capable of smoothing over the ridiculous, cliched nature of this film. It's not one of the best musicals I've ever seen, but it's definitely worth a look.

Dale liked these reviews