Having never seen the original ‘West Side Story’ movie, which was released in 1961, I was surprised by just how many songs I already knew from this particular musical. For instance, I had once heard a beautiful Julie Andrews version of ‘Somewhere’ and recognised ‘America’ as well as ‘I Feel Pretty’. The trailer hooked me in with snippets of these, followed by the promise of a Spielberg twist. After seeing this, I was definitely intrigued and couldn’t wait to set eyes on the finished product.
Following hearing that Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics to this musical and, in fact, it was his first big break, I was all the more excited. At the age of twenty five, Leonard Bernstein asked him to write the words to match his composition and the renamed project of ‘West Side Story’ emerged. It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship which ended in a powerful Broadway stage production and influential movie.
Going to finally watch the production in the cinema, I only knew that it was loosely based on Romeo and Juliet and clashes between two groups, the Jets and the Sharks. I was also aware that it was two and a half hours long, so it would either drag or go quickly. Luckily, it not only went quickly, but was also extremely satisfying, right from the start.
When the first tune started and the camera looked down on a New York block that was about to be destroyed ready for the building of the Lincoln Centre, I was instantly hooked. Spielberg used all of his knowledge of story telling, cinematography and character development to create a believable portrayal of lack of acceptance. Puerto Recan immigrants who had settled in the run down area of the city, were pitched against a group of white Americans who were determined to exclude them from the territory.
With a nod to the squabbling gangs in ‘Grease’, this narrative explored a social experiment where both groups were invited to assimilate at a college ball. During this ball, the lead characters (Tony and Maria) locked eyes across the hall, during a lively and beautiful dance. The two knew that any connection would stir nothing but trouble, especially as Maria’s brother was the leader of the Sharks.
The incredible dance sequence for ‘America’ with its famous chorus ‘I want to live in America’ was a glowing tribute to its choreographer. Rita Moreno returned as Valentina, after originally playing Anita in the original 1961 film. This time, as the owner of a pharmacy, she had taken Tony under her wing and gave us a moving performance of the famous ‘Somewhere’. I have to be honest, I missed most of the visuals during this song as I was crying profusely throughout.
With Stephen Sondheim sadly passing away a few days before this movie came out, it was a wonderful representation of his work. The film had well-placed actors who all danced and sang their hearts out and were totally convincing. For me, this was Spielberg at his very best. It was mind-blowingly good and I shall definitely be going back to the cinema to watch it again soon.
Check out the trailer for this epic movie and drop your comments about it below. For another film review that I wrote, click here. If you enjoyed this article then please consider following my blog for similar future reviews and articles about books and the environment too.