West Side Story (1961)

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PG – Rated | Duration 2h 31m
Genre: Musical, Romance, Drama

Story: West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in 60’s New York. Similar to Shakespeare’s work, the core of the story lies in the racial tension between the white American Jets, and the Puerto-Ricans Sharks. When Tony, a former Jet, meets Maria, a Puerto Rican, they fall in love and plan to run away together. However, the two gangs battle for control of the turf, and soon violence ensues.

Stars: Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn
Directors: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Music by: Leonard Bernstein
Oscars: 10 (including Best Picture), 1 nomination

West Side Story (1961)

A brief introduction before we begin. In this review, we will use the terms interval and leitmotiv.
Interval is the distance between two notes and some intervals are more “natural” sounding, while others need to be resolved. What this practically means, is that an unstable interval, e.g. a triton, needs to be followed by a more stable sounding one, e.g. perfect 5th or 4th. The tritone, as we will see below, is often used as a villain or conflict motive because of how unsettling it sounds. It is an interval built from two notes separated by three whole tones, and even from the middle ages it was called “the devil’s interval”.
A leitmotiv is a short recurring musical phrase that is linked to a specific idea or person or even place. It can be used within the narrative to strengthen for example the idea it expresses.

Review: In West Side Storycomposer Leonard Bernstein uses the interval of the tritone throughout the entire score to represent the various forms of conflict in the drama that need resolution: the rival gangs, the forbidden love, the family schisms, etc. Whenever the Jets and the Sharks are seen the tritone is looming over us, signaling the conflict between these two groups. The Jets and the Sharks also get their leitmotivs, with the tritone prevailing in the Jets’ motive, however completely absent from the Sharks’. This is because the Jets pose the threat in the script, while the Sharks are just trying to make ends meet in America. It is actually mostly the Puerto-Rican motive, and not as much the Sharks’ motive.
The brilliance of the music shines through two key moments. When Tony signs Maria we can still hear this tritone, but this time it is resolved. Their love is the answer to the main conflict of the story. The second one is when Annita is assaulted; we can hear “America”, the Puerto-Rican motive that she sang to celebrate her freedom, but this time it is distorted and the tritone appears once again.
This is a movie with a very simple premise: can love defeat hate? But it is portrayed masterfully. If you ever want to dive into musical themes and their power within the narrative, this is the movie for you.

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