Anna Imhof 🌸’s review published on Letterboxd:
When I saw West Side Story for the first time, I must have been a teenager, and I've been wanting to revisit it for about ten years (!) since I didn't remember a whole lot about it apart from the music (I'm always singing to myself throughout the day and "Maria" is a song in my repertoire, so to speak). Back when I first saw it I already had a passion for film but lacked knowledge and experience, and considering how much I've grown as a cinephile between then and now I thought that maybe I wasn't gonna be very impressed by this, but boy, was I wrong—and how I love being wrong!
This is absolute perfection.
The music (composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics provided by Stephen Sondheim) is simply unbelievable and about as iconic as Elmer Bernstein's score for The Magnificent Seven. It's astounding how much in sync it is with Jerome Robbins' extraordinary choreography. Even when they're not dancing, the rhythm of the music seems to conduct the actors' movements—and vice versa. If somebody as much as snaps a finger, it's timed so perfectly it's part of the score. There's a constant conversation between the music and everything else, and oh my God, the dancing is so fucking good, I just have to swear!
Part of the reason why I love watching dancers is not only because I'm fascinated by their athleticism, but because of how they inhabit their bodies. For someone who is stuck in a body that hasn't been pain-free for over twenty years it's cathartic to witness someone be the master of their body—something that illness denies you. I have always loved dancers; I admire them, and I envy them. Although I make an effort, it's hard to be friends with a body that is in constant discomfort and distress, it's hard to really live in it.
Make no mistake, the thousands and thousands of hours I spend watching Fred Astaire dance are not just because I love to see him wiggle his butt, I watch him because it's healing to me. Somebody once said that Astaire was primarily a hypnotist. That people feel good when they watch him because he's feeling good, and he's letting you in on it. That was his true genius—his capacity to feel joy and his generosity to share it with us—not the fancy steps he made with his feet. He helps me reconnect to my body and the healthy child that I used to be, and maybe I keep watching in hopes that eventually it will last for a little longer than the duration of a song. But even if not, in that moment, all pain flies out the window, and that's worth something, too.
West Side Story gave me similar feelings. These bodies are the epitome of health; they speak of youth and strength and (male) beauty, their boundless energy is infectious and yes, hypnotic. And there's so much of it—constant singing and dancing, for 2.5 hours, it's absolutely glorious. It's basically a really long music video, with really good music.
While the music alone would call for a 5-star rating (I rewinded Tony's rendition of "Maria" about ten times, I just could not get past it), it's not just that, it's everything! Everything is so perfect, the set designs, the colors, the clothes, the cinematography. It's all so breathtaking I not only cried but occasionally even felt a shiver down my spine.
This is how cinema should feel, and yet it so rarely does. This is why us cinephiles keep watching, trailing hundreds, thousands of movies on our search for the ultimate high. Watching movies before breakfast and in the middle of the night, when other people sleep. This is the feeling we're after. And when we find it, we suddenly remember everything—how it all began, our love affair with cinema. Where we are now. Maybe we even wonder how it will end. As I was watching West Side Story, all kinds of cinematic memories were passing through my mind. I thought of The Outsiders, one of my first favorite films, I thought of Michael Jackson's Thriller, I thought of Douglas Sirk's use of color, and so much more. If a film evokes so many memories, if it makes you travel through time in your own personal history with cinema... then I'm thinking it's a good film.
Falling in love with a movie isn't very different from falling in love with a person—you might see the flaws but you don't care, because you love them as a sum, not as a parts, so I've been wondering whether I should even point out a few of these flaws. On one hand I don't want to ruin the feeling, on the other hand I wrote such a lovey-dovey review that people might think I've been blinded. I'm not, I'm not prone to that.
Okay, let's say if someone held me at gunpoint and my life would depend on nitpicking, I might say that maybe it bothered me a little bit that Natalie Wood was chosen to play a Puerto Rican character (but that I understand they needed a "name"), that she also wasn't the greatest actress who ever lived and that the music did a lot of the work for her in scenes that demanded for emotionality. It's also quite astounding how quickly Maria forgives Tony for killing her own brother, like it takes her like three seconds, but hey this is a musical, not a psychological drama, they're not gonna spend thirty minutes dissecting the effects that event had on their relationship. I might also mention that it's a bit of a letdown when you realize that neither lead did their own singing, but then again that just means it created two more jobs! As types they totally fit and their chemistry works: Maria with the wide-eyed innocence, and Tony, so sincere and so very American with his overbite and his vintage Coca-Cola ad face.