West Side Story manages to be an entertaining, exuberant experience despite what may be the silliest premise in movie-musical history: a Romeo and Juliet story in which prancing gang members snap their fingers to intimidate.
Russ Tamblyn, who plays Riff in the film, once told me the concept came from Montgomery Clift. Clift supposedly passed it on to Jerome Robbins, choreographer and eventual co-director of the film version, and more than anything else West Side Story is a testament to Robbins’ sheer creative verve.
One wishes for a spicier Tony and Maria than Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood, both of whom had to have their singing dubbed, but whenever the camera pulls away from them to capture the dazzling colors and intricate choreography that takes place on the elaborate urban sets, the movie leaps to life.
It’s usually not a good thing when style trumps substance, but in West Side Story it comes as a welcome, acrobatic feat.