A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1961 – West Side Story
As much as I wanted to find something else for 1961, I kept coming back to this as the choice.
On the empirical side, it was the highest grossing movie of 1961, and the film won a shitload of Oscars. Plus, it’s also one of the ten most iconic movie musicals of all time. It’s one of those movies where you’ve seen it before you’ve seen it. Simply by growing up, you become aware of everything about this movie. And when you see it, it’s all of that and more.
I’m pretty sure if you had people list movie musicals, this would be one of the first they come up with. It’s so great. As much as I wanted to go for something else (there aren’t many for 1961: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (self-explanatory. But not as fitting as this), maybe The Misfits (exemplary of the death of the studio system/Old Hollywood)…other than that, no slam dunk choices), West Side Story has to be the choice.
There are some musicals where you remember them, but you don’t really remember them. You can’t name most of the songs, and you mostly remember the plot. The Music Man is like that for me. I can barely remember any of the music in it. But this movie – I can rattle off almost all the songs without issue. And I can tell you exactly what the musical numbers look like. It’s one of the most visually impressive musicals of all time. You just remember the things that happen here.
The whole thing is just beautiful. You can watch it any time, and it’ll be as fresh as the first time you saw it. And I guarantee you, you put this on the big screen, and sit a child in front of it, they’ll become engrossed by it. It’s that kind of movie. It just washes over you the way few films do. (Probably because it was filmed in Super 70. Some things just need that kind of scope to work.)
The whole thing is just larger than life. Rita Moreno and George Chakiris are so good and so charismatic. And Natalie Wood is great, but unfortunately, as was the case with a lot of big stars in musicals in the 60s (see: Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), she had their voice dubbed over by Marni Nixon.
If I were gonna show someone the best musicals of all time, I’d pick an Astaire/Rogers, Singin’ in the Rain, and this as my top three. Wouldn’t even think twice. Everything else would be a negotiation. This might not spring to mind as the most representative film of 1961, but absolutely everything about it proves otherwise.
Plus – and I say this from a position of objectivity, because I certainly wasn’t expecting this – the Blu-Ray of this movie is the most beautiful copy of any movie I’ve ever seen. I’m not kidding. This movie holds up better than movies that were released today.