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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition

MOVIE REVIEWS

WEST SIDE STORY: 50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (1961)

Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Simon Oakland, Ned Glass, William Bramley, Tucker Smith, Tony Mordente, David Winters, Eliot Feld, Bert Michaels, David Bean, Robert Banas, Scooter Teague, Harvey Hohnecker, Tommy Abbott, Susan Oakes, Gina Trikonis, Carole D'Andrea, Jose De Vega, Jay Norman, Gus Trikonis, Eddie Verso, Jaime Rogers, Yvonne Othon, Suzie Kaye, Joanne Miya and John Astin.

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman.

Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise.

Distributed by United Artists.  152 minutes.  Not Rated.

 

Everyday Beautiful

West Side Story: 50th Anniversary Edition

Arguably the best musical in movie history turns 50 this year.  The anniversary is being celebrated with a new special Blu-Ray edition as well as a limited theatrical release. 

However, 50 years in a long time.  Does West Side Story still hold up? 

Hell, yes.

Oh sure, there are some technical problems that probably only get exacerbated by the hi-def release – a lot of the character makeup is distractingly orange now – but West Side Story has aged about as well as any film of its vintage can claim. 

Of course, much of that stems from the source material, which is as close to perfect as can be. 

West Side Story was based on a then fairly current (and not overly popular) Broadway musical of the same name.  The musical itself was not-so-loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – the story of star-crossed lovers Tony and Maria in the gang-ridden neighborhoods of New York’s upper west side. 

He is an Italian boy.  She is a Puerto Rican girl.  Their families and friends are constantly fighting.  Can love at first sight survive this toxic atmosphere? 

Of course it can’t, exactly, but West Side Story tells its alternately touching, funny and ultimately tragic story with some of the greatest songs of the 20th Century.  Unlike most current musicals, where maybe one or two songs becomes a classic, just about every song in West Side Story is a standard.  Those songs include such favorites and “Somewhere,” “Maria,” “I Feel Pretty,” “America,” “Tonight, Tonight,” “The Jet Song,” “Cool” and others.  In fact, most of the songs on the soundtrack have been performed on the current season of Glee, showing their continuing relevance.

With nearly perfect musical accompaniment, some wonderfully modern choreography (if you ever wondered where the dancing knife-fight in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” came from, this is the place) and a surprisingly heartfelt story, West Side Story hits on all cylinders. 

It is fun to find some old Hollywood hands here in the background.  Simon Oakland (Kolchak: the Night Stalker) plays a bigoted cop and future Addams Family patriarch John Astin has a memorable bit-part as a dweeby teacher.  Best of the old guard is great old character actor Ned Glass – who was as good as anyone in Hollywood at playing frustrated middle-aged Jewish guys – as Tony’s understanding boss. 

However, the kids were the main thrust of the film and the youthful energy carries the load. 

Of course the old complaint is that a young Natalie Wood didn’t look even remotely Puerto Rican as Maria – and it may be a slightly valid complaint – but she does just fine in the role.  Also, quite a few of the other cast members were the wrong nationality for their character – her brother was played by George Chakiris, who was Greek, and other Puerto Rican friends were played by Italian, French and Asian actors. 

People also tend to make a big deal about Wood’s vocals being dubbed in by the legendary Marni Nixon, who made a living doing the singing on musicals for other actresses (she also sang Audrey Hepburn’s part in My Fair Lady, Deborah Kerr’s in The King & I and Margaret O’Brien’s in The Secret Garden).  However, in the DVD they do show a snippet of Wood actually singing, and while her voice was a little thin, it was actually not bad at all.  It’s no crime to be less talented a singer than Marni Nixon.  Besides, real singers in the cast – for example a young Rita Moreno as Anita – were also dubbed for the movie.  It’s just the way movie musicals were done back then. 

And yet, West Side Story as a musical goes above and beyond the way that musicals have ever been done.  It deserves to be mentioned in any serious discussions of the high point of the musical art form in Hollywood history.  Yes, it is that good.  Any serious student of film who has not seen it has a serious hole in their education and should run – not walk – to see it.  Boy, boy, crazy boy, be cool, boy…

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 15, 2011.

 

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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: November 15, 2011.