Top 100 Movie Review: #41 – West Side Story (1961)

Skinny Jeans Were Never So Intimidating.

These frolicking gang members are hard to take seriously. 


American Film Institute’s Ranking: #41/100
Academy Awards: Ten Academy awards including Best Picture.
My Rating: StarStar

This movie is a whole lot of ridiculous. I don’t expect musicals to be simulacrums of reality, but I need something more concrete than prancing boys in a retelling of Romeo and Juliet who make statements on race relations.

I’m almost afraid to see the intellectual take on this film from 1961. “How important are the arts,” I can hear them saying, “having the audacity to take on the tumultuous themes of the American Dream and Immigration. What would we do without Broadway?”

Where this film ultimately fails for me is that it is less of a musical and more of a So You Think You Can Dance? episode. Having just watched The Sound of Music, this musical lacks the big and catchy tunes and instead relies on choreographed dance offs. Part of me appreciates the art form, part of me still was disappointed.

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The face of evil.


Two gangs, the infamous all-white Sharks and notorious riff-raff Puerto Rican Jets, are in a turf war in the West side of NYC. At a dance where the gangs are supposed to set up the rules for their next confrontation, current Shark Tony falls in love with Maria who is sister of the leader of the Jets.

What a tangled web!

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A bunch of dull commentary on dull details follows:

The Themes. 

It’s refreshing to talk about something new like the effect of class on one’s position in society. 🤬

While the backbone is supposed to be a statement on how both the Jets and Sharks can’t see the forest for the trees (while they battle out for ownership of one block in New York, they are both poor and powerless) I couldn’t help but think about the role of personal responsibility.

Tony escaped gang life and had a low status job working for a local soda shop. The histrionics of two immature boys pulls him back into the vortex and destroys several lives in the process. I guess the message of the movie was supposed to be how they had no choice but to act this conclusion out; they are powerless due to their status in society.

Instead, I can’t help but think how senseless it was, and how any one mature and warranted action by a single person would have course corrected the ship and avoided the entire travesty. It could have happened with the gangs not setting up the fight; Tony not showing up to the fight; the Sharks treating Maria’s friend with respect; Tony not looking for a fight; Maria’s brother being okay with her dating someone else.

At least a dozen dominos have to fall in a very specific way, and I don’t find it hard to believe that one strong-willed individual could have raised above the fray to have prevented it. There isn’t anyone like that in this film; everyone is weak, and thus there is no rallying point.

West Side Story
So scary. 

Love Story. 

West Side Story asks an awful lot of us. Not only do Tony and Maria fall in love at first glance and madly want to spend the rest of their lives together by running off within 24 hours of first meeting, Maria still wants to be with Tony after he MURDERS her brother.

This nascent love is wholly unbelievable and made me not care much about what was to follow.

What Songs?

The focus is on the dance numbers. The problem: we’ve been saturated with that type of entertainment everywhere. The only way to make an impact was a timeless song, but there aren’t any to be found. The only quasi-interesting song was another progressive deconstruction of the American Dream:

What’s sad? During the movie, this was the only number that really stood out to me. It had a message and at least communicated something. It’s not a good number, but at least something is there.

Rewatching it via youtube makes it extremely preachy view point saturate the screen. The point, counter-point volley is interesting, but at the end of the day, I don’t know where it really settles in my mind. It’s not erudite enough to be potent and it’s not catchy enough to memorable — just another piece of cinema that floats away into the ether.


Mama always told me to avoid gangs.

Other People’s Takes: 

  • Wisdom From A Father: “As I concentrated on the plot, the film made sense. Cultural biases. The irrationality of violence. Gang mentality. It wasn’t half bad — especially if you could tune out the singing and dancing. It would have been a good drama.”
  • DReager1: “Overall, I would recommend staying away from West Side Story. Not only is it a fairly bad film, but it really drags on. The run time is incredibly long and that’s mainly because the pacing is so slow.”
  • Bookshelf Battle: “Though it won the Oscar for best picture, this movie has been criminally underrated ever since, basically being lost to the annals of musical aficionados rather than watched by everyone as it should be.

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