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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

West Side Story (1961)



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Leonard Bernstein's masterpiece is this wrenching musical update of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story tells the tragic tale of young lovers in the (then) modern setting of the gang scene in New York City. An ex-member of one gang falls in love with the sister of the leader of a rival gang, and the story goes on from there.

What's so fascinating is how well it stands on its own. This isn't a gimmicky Romeo and Juliet knock-off -- the plot is appropriately tailored for West Side Story's new setting, characters, and purpose. And the result is astonishingly powerful. Several movies move me upon first viewing. Fewer retain their power upon successive viewings. West Side Story is almost unique in that regard -- the deep impact it makes on me with each viewing is as or more compelling each time I see it. This is the kind of story that strikes a profound chord in the human spirit. Consider the masterfully timed and choreographed scene where Anita attempts to deliver an important message, and you'll know what I'm talking about.

And Leonard Bernstein's spectacular music complements and enhances that. It's a jazz musical, with bittersweet songs of high hopes, energetic songs bursting with pent up anger and anxiety, and dazzling big production numbers. The dancing is as breathtaking as the music.

West Side Story won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, all well deserved. In my book, it ranks high even amongst its Best Picture-winning peers.