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West Side Story (Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, 1961)

Romeo and Juliet meet New York, Bernstein and a lot of hair spray.

The musical numbers are as earwormy as expected and the story quite beautifully told. I wonder how the (racial) stereotypes were put down in the film: "Polish-Irish" vs. "Puerto-Rican/Spanish". The white guys with their 50s make-up and their baseball jackets are inherently funny to look at and give the film its beautiful Americana vintage look.

On the other hand, the Puerto-Ricans look like a caricature of a pool overseer and animator in a Club Med resort. Their skins appear to have been sloppily painted on with an early prototype of a car finish airbrush and their hair towers are marvels of construction - they must have hired a static engineer on set to keep those quiffs staying upright. Maybe it has to do with how the film reacted to the pigment, but it seems more like a minstrel show to me.

The biggest hurdle for the musicals I have seen so far is to keep the story interesting. Very often, the music halts the flow of the story and usually the choice is to cut to a new scene. This means that you need a new exposition after every song or dance number. West Side Story is not much different than others, but it manages to keep the story moving.  One obvious trick is to have the music at the dance hall. Another is when "walking" towards a fight.

Visually, the colors are lush and bright and the sets appear beautiful and just as colorful. Many scenes used vivid foreground costumes to highlight the character, to a point where the person seems cut out from the scene. Some of the imagery has been inspired by religious examples. And the credits by Saul Bass are simply amazing.


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