West Side Story ★★★★

AFI Top 52 Project - #51

I should probably preface this by saying that I’m generally not a fan of musicals. Well, I always say that, but then I watch one and find myself singing the songs for days (even weeks) afterwards so I guess I am a fan to a degree. I just don’t usually watch them without a good reason like, oh say, for a film project.

This is certainly one of the more memorable musicals I’ve watched. I feel like I’ve seen it several times before and yet the only specific time I can remember is in middle school. I find it hard to believe I haven’t watched it since then, but maybe I haven’t. During the opening number, it’s honestly hard not to laugh at a bunch of gang members doing pirouettes, but once the story gets going that stops being an issue. Maybe it’s because everything else is often breathtaking. The choreography, the lighting, and the costumes are all just phenomenal. Every single color used in every single shot seems to be done with a specific purpose of a deeper meaning. It’s the kind of thing I definitely did not have the ability to appreciate before this viewing.

There are some uncomfortable racial moments especially in the beginning. The mistreatment of people of color as just “something that happens” and the harsh divisions based on skin tone are pretty abhorrent. I was really afraid that there would be that type of casual racism throughout the movie and I wasn’t going to like it. I know it was made in the early 60’s, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable. Instead, as the film progressed, I started to see that there is a very strong anti-racism message in the story. That aforementioned mistreatment is fully acknowledged and we are shown exactly the type of destruction that hatred causes. I bet this is not one of Trump’s favorite films.

The musical scenes are superb. Several of the songs hit notes that sound pleasing to the ear but are hard to hit correctly if you actually try to sing them. Maybe that’s why some of the actors were dubbed in for those parts? I can already tell you that I’m going to have “America” and “I Feel Pretty” stuck in my head for much longer than I desire. Speaking of, it’s really awful that “America” is just as relevant today as it was then. Yes, this country provides opportunities for immigrants, but look at the unacceptable hidden costs they are forced to pay. We really haven’t come very far at all.

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