DAY 5: Greatest Movie Musical Number 1
Over the past fortnight I have counted down the top 20 greatest movie musicals of all time, from celebrated classics such as The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz through to more controversial choices such as South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. But for all the also-rans, it has led to this final entry; the cream of the all-singing, all-dancing crop, the greatest movie musical of all time...
1: West Side Story
Director: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise
Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris
Selecting pole position in this series was not an easy thing to do - going solely on personal preference would have perhaps sidled Beauty and the Beast or Moulin Rouge to the top spot, but every time I was tempted to do so it sat ill to have West Side Story anywhere but here and there are almost countless reasons for why it has naturally segued into pole position. As an adaptation of the original broadway musical which in itself was an inspired and updated retelling of the atypical Romeo and Juliet architecture, West Side Story follows the frictions between rival gangs The Sharks and The Jets in 1950’s New York, and a doomed romance that develops amidst the feud. It is reliably accessible narrative fare, yet one that anchors the film and serves as the perfect nexus around which the exceptional cast, the superlative soundtrack and visual splendour and imaginings flourish, with a rich americano-puerto rican flavouring to proceedings throughout. And whilst many have parodied the choice of marrying streetgang warfare with song and dance choreography, the execution is so consistently flawless and all involved perform with such conviction that little suspension of disbelief is required and the drama, tension and threat remain tangible and convincing throughout.
Little really needs to be said of the oft-covered yet never-bettered soundtrack, instantly recognisable in its endurance and pitch-perfect in its placement. Whilst some of the music is somewhat indulgent and does little to progress the narrative, for instance the famous America sequence, nonetheless they beautifully demonstrate character and culture and, crucially, form the basis of thoroughly entertaining and often visually dazzling set pieces. Yet for all the visual delights, spectacle and genuine directorial ambition and scope for a musical of its time, it is the films willingness to be equally invested in the dark and the tragic as it is the bright and the vibrant that gives it an emotional scale and resonance few musicals can match. It is unsurprising it went on to become one of the most critically successful movie musicals of all time, and to this day it is the fourth most successful film of all time at the Oscars, sweeping 10 awards including Best Picture and Director, making it easily the most successful movie musical at the Academy Awards.
Whilst much of this review and praise may seem sweeping and generalised, that is due in no small way to the fact that to focus on praising the individual aspects or elements of West Side Story would be far too particular and semantic for a film which is altogether superlative and perfect in execution. Despite being nestled in the lacuna of its period setting, the characters, music and plot are as timeless and accessible as they are beautifully depicted, and it is not difficult to envisage it ranking similarly high in lists such as this for many decades to come. In scope, sound, conviction, legacy and entertainment, it is going to take something rather extraordinary to supplant West Side Story, the greatest movie musical of all time.
Encore!: “Maria”, “America”, “Tonight” and “Somewhere”
Steals the Show: The cast are extraordinary across-the-board, but George Chakiris and Rita Moreno captivate and bring fire and passion that rivals even the central love story as Shark leader Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita. Even with Betty Wand performing the singing vocals for Anita, Moreno and Chakiris crackle with chemistry and fire and dominate practically any scene they appear in.
So there it is - did you agree with the selection for number 1? How about the rest of the countdown? As always any comments or feedback are more than welcome. Listed below is the truncated top 20 list for you to peruse over and remind yourself of what films came where:
20) Little Shop of Horrors
19) The Rocky Horror Picture Show
18) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
15) The Lion King
14) Singing in the Rain
12) The Sound of Music
9) The Little Mermaid
8) My Fair Lady
7) Mary Poppins
6) The Wizard of Oz
4) South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut
3) Moulin Rouge!
2) Beauty and the Beast
1) West Side Story