Cinematic Flashback: West Side Story (1961) Review

Tonight, tonight, the world is full of light. With suns and moons all over the place. Tonight, tonight the world is wild and bright. Going mad, shooting sparks into space” A tale of two star-crossed lovers, a cultural divisions rivalry, and the showcases of a Broadway musicals helps bring together the latest cinematic flashback review of 1961’s West Side Story.


“A modern Romeo & Juliet tale”

Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Writer: Ernest Lehman

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and Rita Moreno

Run Time: 152 minutes

Release Date: October 18th, 1961

Rated: PG


The feuding families become two warring New York City gangs–the white Jets led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Latino Sharks, led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Their hatred escalates to a point where neither can coexist with any form of understanding. But when Riff’s best friend (and former Jet), Tony (Richard Beymer), and Bernardo’s younger sister, Maria (Natalie Wood) meet at a dance, no one can do anything to stop their love. Maria and Tony begin meeting in secret, planning to run away. Then the Sharks and Jets plan a rumble under the highway–whoever wins gains control of the streets. Maria sends Tony to stop it, hoping it can end the violence. It goes terribly wrong, and before the lovers know what’s happened, tragedy strikes and doesn’t stop until the climactic and heartbreaking ending.


While I am fan of filmmaking and movies, I’ve also been a fan of musical. Not a fully hardcore fan, but enough to appreciate the craft and the lyrical intrigue of stage musicals. Of course, I’ve seeing my fair share of the actual theater Broadway shows, including Les Miserable, Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat, Cats, and Phantom of the Opera. So, yes…. I do understand the classics. West Side Story, however, was one of the musicals that I never had the chance to see. I knew that name of it and very rough outline of what the story was about, but actually never fully viewed it. I always wanted to view the 1961 film, but kept on pushing it off. Naturally, I saw the movie trailer for the 2021 remake, which was being done by director Stephen Spielberg, and it sort of reignited my interest in seeing the original film. I did see the 2021 film adaptation prior to seeing the 1961 version, so while my thoughts might be slightly jaded, my opinions of the iconic classic 1961 film of West Side Story still remains the same.

I do have to admit that the overall feeling of West Side Story is actually pretty good. It’s no wonder why people still praise the film to this date for it’s modern take on the famous Romeo & Juliet tale. Naturally, the film has been submerged into various pop culture status that it’s hard to draw in compounded terms because of the overall familiarity with the narrative being told. Still, much like the multiple adaptations to Shakespeare’s story, West Side Story remains fundamentally the same; projecting a great rivalry and two star-crossed lovers caught in the middle. Thus, I think that what directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins did with taking the 1957 Broadway stage musical and translating it into a feature film presentation is beautiful and sublime to behold.

Naturally, the movie’s big selling point is all the various singing and dancing that are incorporated into the Romeo & Juliet narrative, with West Side Story being one of the better known Broadway musicals of the age. This is clearly represented throughout the feature, with the movie showcasing such memorable songs such as “America”, “Tonight” and “I Feel Pretty”, which iconic in their own rights and the feature displays those sequences with majestic majesty. This also plays a part in the movie’s choreography, which also is terrific to watch, with all the various movements and dance numbers playing up the lively music. Also, the production design and various set locations are stunning and well-presented across the board. Additionally, I do have to say that I watch this movie in 4K and do have to admit that restoration / preservation of this iconic film looks fantastic!

The movie does have its fair share flaws and criticisms, including the painted make-up of many of the Latino characters to have the same shade of brown face / skin, including those of Puerto Rico decent (i.e. Rita Moreno) as well as the somewhat cringeworthy fake accents throughout. Additionally, the movie feels long with a variety of scenes and sequences running a bit longer than they should be; creating an excessiveness in the musical that really needed to be trimmed down at least a good ten or fifteen minutes. Even for a 1961 film, having a runtime of 152 minutes is considerably long. Plus, the film’s more gritter and / or fight scenes (aka “the rumble”) seems more like a dance choreography of tumbling movements rather than an actual brawl. Of course, its understandable with the movie being a musical, but it just seems a bit wonky and underwhelming, despite being the main focal “big scene” of the feature. Lastly, even though in this was more commonplace during the time of filmmaking, but it was quite clear of what parts were played by the actor / actress and when they vocals are occasionally dubbed by singing voice stand-ins.

The cast in the film is mostly good, with many portraying these characters. That being said, the main characters in the story (Tony and Maria) are hands down the least interesting of the narrative, despite being the primary focal point of West Side Story. Collectively, they are fine in their respective acting talents, but don’t exactly make their characters “come alive”; rendering Tony and Maria a bit wooden and a little blank slate…mere just two people who fall in love. Also, I just felt that both Beymer and Wood looked a bit older than what Tony and Maria should be. Everyone else looked fine and age appropriate, but they just felt out of space right from the get-go.

Much like Romeo & Juliet, the two star-crossed lovers are surrounded by more memorable characters (i.e. Tybalt, Mercutio, Balthasar, Benvolio, etc.) and are far more interesting / dynamic than the central protagonist ones. The same can be said in West Side Story, with most of the supporting cast drumming up charismatic performances, which stand out whenever on-screen. Of course, none is more dazzling and memorable than Moreno, who plays the role of Anita, Bernardo’s girlfriend. She’s fiery, spirited, has plenty of spunk, and captures the role beautifully. It’s no wonder why her performance is perhaps the most iconic of the 1961 movie. The others, including George Chakiris as Bernardo and Russ Tamblyn as Riff, also turn fine performances in the film, with both actors playing up the hot-headed and cocky / arrogant behaviors of the two leaders of rival gangs.

To wrap this up….it still goes without saying the 1961’s West Side Story, despite its flaws and all, remains a true musical classic that deserves to be seen by a multitude of viewers of various generations. It’s no wonder why the feature has been hailed as one of the greatest music films of all time by many, won a slew of awards, and deemed a culturally / historically significant by the library of Congress as well as being selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1997. In conclusion, the overall allure and fascination of updating a modern-esque style Romeo & Juliet story continues to find a special niche within many, with West Side Story being a perfect example of different cultures, star-crossed lovers, memorable songs, and a tale that is quite literally…..timeless.

Cinematic Flashback Score: 4.1 Out of 5

Fun Fact: Actor Richard Beymer later confessed in an interview that he wasn’t happy with how his performance came out, saying that he wanted to play Tony as a rougher and tougher, more like actual street kid who used to run around with a gang starting fights for fun, but Robert Wise made him play Tony as the nicest guy around, which Beymer felt didn’t mesh with the character’s back story. He also said he had trouble saying some of his lines with a straight face, namely the more romantic lines. He even reportedly walked on the London premiere of the film…..even though it ended up being his most famous role of his career.

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