West Side Story ★★★★½

One of the all time most popular musicals West Side Story is indeed an utter juggernaut and a dazzling assault on the senses.

The story is an ingeniously modern and surprisingly gritty update of Romeo and Juliet with the action taking place between two rival gangs in New York in the late 1950’s. Ernest Lehman’s parable structure is very interesting and he brilliantly gets to know each and every one of his characters who are all interesting, empathetic figures who from the first minute we understand deeply. This is the beauty of Lehman’s incredible writing. The seasoned screenwriter really does present a well written, layered and engaging story told expertly. Tonally the film can at times be awkwardly balanced between light and dark but this is a minor quibble.

Robert Wise directed this epic musical and he was already well known for some brilliant works throughout his career. He had previously directed the magnificent The Day the Earth Stood Still and had done sound work on The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat so was well experienced and knew what was expected of him when this came around. He does a remarkable job of bringing this masterclass to life as well. The entire project is shot through with a remarkable level of energy and the cinematography here is utterly resplendent and beautiful from Daniel L. Fapp. Jerome Robbins won an Oscar as well for his choreography and deservedly so. Every routine is directed with extreme aggressive precision and the most complex of dance steps are made to look ridiculously simple. The colour scheme and sound design are of real quality here as well which gives this picture an almost dreamlike and fantastical quality which brilliantly offsets the grittier elements of the Screenplay. 

From a casting perspective as well West Side Story is a huge success. Although criticised in his day Richard Beymer’s angsty portrayal of Tony is truly excellent and the definition of adolescent anger. Natalie Wood is also amazing here as Maria with her grounded, poignant and emotional portrayal one of the key reasons to watch this feature. It is possibly her greatest career performance. George Chakiris as well is unbelievably good. He just epitomises cool and edgy appeal and his performance is utterly exceptional. Rita Moreno is also a huge standout and is always watchable and likeable throughout.

In conclusion, West Side Story is an outstanding piece of art from its time that’s combination of edge and light makes it an unmissable treat for both the mind and the senses. The musical numbers are mostly strong but the choreography, visual style, depth of character and acting are what puts West Side Story a level above most musical fare and make it a strong and deserved multiple Oscar winning picture.