Something Great is Coming with West Side Story (2021)

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Source: NBC News

Will Teare, Film Beat Reporter

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, David Alvarez and Rita Moreno

Release Date: Dec. 10, 2021

Rating: 4.5/5

The 1961 West Side Story is a film for the ages. It’s been widely considered the benchmark for cinematic adaptations of musicals since it hit theaters. Not only that, but it’s also considered one of the best movies of the sixties, and that is an especially tall order. The film was helmed by Robert Wise, the director of a little film called The Sound of Music and an editor on an even smaller film called Citizen Kane. So when I heard the news that my favorite director, Steven Spielberg, was helming a new West Side Story? I was definitely more than just a “little” nervous. Everyone, including me, was skeptical of the whole concept of remaking a classic, even if it is taken up by Steven Spielberg. However, after a full year of this film being delayed, I have the pleasure of telling you that we all were sorely mistaken. It may be better than the original, and we owe Mr. Spielberg a well-deserved apology.

West Side Story, in a sentence, is beat for beat Romeo and Juliet (except for that one specific thing) but a musical set during a gang war in 50’s New York. To elaborate, Tony(Ansel Elgort) is a teen fresh out of prison and doing his best to work an honest job in Doc’s Drugstore run by Valentina(Rita Moreno). But when his old gang, the Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), comes to ask for his help in the next rumble, it all turns upside down. On the other side, Maria (Rachel Zegler) is a young Puerto Rican immigrant who’s constantly under the overprotective eye of her brother and Sharks gang leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez). When the two meet each other, they inadvertently spark even more tension between the gangs, careening the story into an inevitable yet tragic final destination. 

As for the films’ justification of its existence, longtime Spielberg collaborator and screenwriter Tony Kushner needs to be rewarded for his hard work. Without spoilers, Kushner makes a lot of great changes to the source material. Kushner is able to give much more context to why Tony and Maria fall in love and give them more background as real people. Additionally, he gives much more development to the actual gangs. The Sharks and the Puerto Rican side have plenty more depth to go around. The Jets and Riff are a lot darker and feel less like the protagonists and more like the tragic band of brothers due for a very rude awakening. When “Gee, Officer Krupke” rolls around, the lyrics feel less like a weaker number and more of an essential text to understand these damaged children of their equally troubled environment. Chino and Anybodys, although I can’t say much about the two here, have a great rework and well-told, subtle arc.  

Most notably, Kushner and Spielberg take great care of the titular West Side in this story. Because this film is from a writer looking back on Caucasian-Puerto Rican racial tensions in 50’s-60’s New York rather than Sondheim and company writing a musical then and there, we have much more hindsight on what really went down there. Rather than opening on an idyllic Kennedy Era Manhattan and panning to a random Basketball court in the Upper West Side, we open on a jaw-dropping crane shot on the rubble of San Juan Hill. San Juan Hill was a real, predominantly Puerto Rican community that was bulldozed over to make way for Lincoln Center. Notably, Lincoln Center is an essential cultural spot for New Yorkers…but a predominantly white one. It’s no mistake that after we pan over the rubble that looks more akin to post-war Europe than New York, Riff and the jets emerge from a bulldozer. Funny enough, the film opens with a sign broadcasting that the debris will become Lincoln Center, where Speilberg’s West Side Story premiered, so the audience probably got a regrettable kick out of that. 

The entire supporting cast is unbelievable. I understand that Mike Faist is known to Broadway fans as Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen. Still, to my movie-going eyes, he’s a new face, but a face I’d like to see a lot more of. It’s that very face that supports his already gifted performance. It gives Riff less of Russ Tamblyn’s charismatic teddy bear demeanor and more of a teen with a distinct and dangerous edge that is determined to hurl himself into the deep end no matter the cost. Riff’s clear and present racial bias seems less like blunt racism and more of an anger at the world and what it costs for him to live in it.

On the other hand, David Alvarez is given the background that he’s a boxer, a natural-born warrior that thinks fighting and protecting are one and the same. So when the Jets come and harass members of his community, and he discovers that a Jet is trying to get with his little sister, this man is locked in. Alvarez plays him to a T. Rita Moreno (EGOT winner, stage and screen legend, producer on this film, and the original Anita from the 1961 movie) comes in as Valentina, a new character in place of Doc. A very welcome change that adds layers to the inevitable tragedy, a touching rendition of “Somewhere,” and the impact of a certain scene with Arianna DeBoses’ Anita. Speaking of which, DeBose may be the best performer in the movie. Anita as a role is easily the flashiest in the musical. You need to pull off a young, sexy, and loud Latina with some fun song and dance numbers to show off your talent. You then hit some of the lowest and saddest moments in the show. Arianna DeBose effortlessly shows Anita from all angles and deserves Academy recognition(though she may have to ironically compete with Moreno, who already won for Anita back in 61’)

Now, let’s talk Zegler. Rachel Zegler is the eponymous heroine of the story and has been one of the most talked-about parts of the film for the last few years. The 20-year-old now famously walked off her high school play of West Side Story and straight into the big screen, beating out 30,000 other applicants to open the casting call of Maria in 2018. Months before the movie was even released, it was announced that she was cast in the upcoming DC Comics film Shazam! Fury of the Gods and will be playing Snow White in a new live-action Snow White film alongside Gal Gadot. This generated an unbelievable amount of hype for the young woman, which she matched in spades. Zegler is able to capture the naivete of Maria but, with the help of Kushner and Spielberg, have a more rebellious turn with much more agency as a fleshed-out human being. 

Ansel Elgort is…a fascinating case study compared to Zegler. In fact, their marketing and public opinion are direct opposites. In June of 2020, a woman came out to Twitter about Elgort sexually assaulting her when she was 17, and he was 20. Since then, the marketing for the film almost completely cut out Tony and focused primarily on Maria. Elgort’s performance isn’t bad, and he isn’t a bad singer either. He’s able to deliver what he needs to deliver. Has to be sad? Done. Has to be in love? Sure. Has to perform alongside Rachel Zegler and the rest of the cast… that’s where Elgort falters. The whole cast acts and sings circles around Elgort, and it’s quite apparent. Not enough to exactly take away from the movie, but enough that we feel like we’re missing out on a much better casting choice, even despite the allegations. 

All in all, Spielberg, Kushner, and the company do a great job at elevating the source material to a debatably higher level than the original. The movie looks gorgeous on Janusz Kamiński’s camera, and the musical numbers were great. The extra dialogue was surprisingly needed and very much appreciated. The subtle and not-so-subtle rewrites of the whole film were genuinely impressive. For a rating, I shall grant this a 4/5, but after some time writing this review and another rewatch in the near future, this may very, very easily be a 4.5/5. There is a place for Tony and Maria, somewhere…and I think Spielberg created one for them.