West Side Story (1961) Review

[This review contains spoilers]

I didn’t expect what I got out of this film. I thought it’d be a fun romance, what I got was far more. It’s a very nuanced and mature film. The way it was shot is almost poetic. I didn’t expect for it to start with an aerial view of the city. Something that almost every TV show and movie does now, but something I almost never see from movies of that era.

It was lovely seeing New York in the 1960s, it really drew me into that time period, firmly establishing the mood of the film.

The dancing was excellent and very masculine, not something I can often say about a musical. The way the camera moved with the dancers, as if it was apart of the choreography, it reminded me of Gene Kelly.

This film is definitely a really good version of Romeo and Juliet, even better than the original in my mind. There are things that are done that I just think overall makes the story stronger. For example, Maria and Tony never marry like Romeo and Juliet, but they imagine what it would be like; saying their vows. It’s more realistic, but shows their commitment to each other, yes they basically just met yesterday, but they are madly in love.

The thing that really sets this film apart, besides the great music and dancing (and I don’t say that flippantly, the music really is great). It’s the racial tensions. Maria is Puerto Rican, and so is her friends and family. Her brother is in a Puerto Rican gang, that fight an American gang.

Both sides are young, and both are stupid. The film doesn’t take sides, it shows that the Puerto Rican gang feel alienated by American society and, to some extent, feel the weigh of racism on their backs. Yet the Puerto Rican immigrants argue amongst themselves, stating how America is a land of opportunity, yet they some of them spit back, sure if you’re ‘white’.

Yet, to counter these arguments is the American gang, this ‘land of opportunity’ produced them. Kids that are on the bad side of the law, from broken homes, that only feel at home on the streets fighting for their one bit of road. They only have each other as family, and they’re not going to give that up for anything.

These racial tensions in the film aren’t just between the Americans and the Puerto Ricans, it’s amongst the immigrants themselves. That’s what makes this film so nuanced, and just poignant.

Both sides are idiotic in the end, because that violence ends up with death on both sides. It shows that if you allow for that kind of hate and anger fill you up, nothing good will come if it. There is no winning in a war they literally created.

I did think there were some weaknesses in the film, like Maria just forgiving Tony after killing her brother almost instantly, but moments like that were few and far in-between. The film mostly overcomes them with just how good everything else is.

This film is easily recommended for anyone. Check it out, if you want a serious film that actually means something.

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