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REVIEW: WEST SIDE STORY(2021, aka the Steven Spielberg revelation)

Year: 2021

Runtime: 156 minutes

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Arthur Laurents (stage play, book)

Actors: Rachel Zegler, Ansel Elgort, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Mike Faist, Jose Andres Rivera, Iris Menas

By Peggy Marie

Who would have thought we would see the day where Steven Spielberg makes a musical – and not just any musical, but a remake of the very famous classic “West Side Story” (1961)? The original which was nominated for 11 Oscars, going on to winning 10 including Best Picture, was a film that defined the acting careers of Natalie Wood and the wonderful Rita Moreno, as well. It further established musical theater phenoms Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (RIP) as bona fide household names. This movie is based on the 1957 Broadway musical, of which I actually have an original poster that I acquired in the late 1990’s from an agent I worked for as a parting gift – right after I had finally seen the 1961 original, which is of course based loosely on the classic Shakespearean “Romeo and Juliet” story. Could there really be a bigger challenge for Spielberg after his long and industrious career? Probably not. The question is, does he succeed?

Original Broadway poster on my wall

Even in our remake/reboot/sequel/MCU clogged movie world, doing a film like this is still a massive undertaking and also a bit fun for some to complain or discuss the “why’s” of any and all big screen reboots, even if they’re brought to life by oh, just one of the greatest directors of the past four decades, Steven Spielberg. Having had the filming pushed back for more than a year due to various pandemic-related issues, the last few months have only further primed audiences to wonder exactly this. Why?

Based on a few early answers, Spielberg and his team wanted to cast differently than the original version. He looked into a variety of Latinx stars in the Shark parts i.e., more roles tailormade for actual Puerto Rican actors versus the 60’s where makeup was used to make them ‘look’ as though from Puerto Rico. Also, he seemingly wanted to lean into the sense of the actual division between people as it were. From my understanding, arrangements of the musical numbers were shifted to better reflect the original musical stage production from 1957.

Moving on as all that sounds well and good, adding touchups and all, but something like “West Side Story” stands tall all on its own, so did it really need those touchups? Turns out, yes it did, as Spielberg’s first musical is not only vibrant, rich with colour, somewhat wild, and a satisfying show of an updated version of the classic. While fans might initially take exception at if and how faithful it seems to its predecessor, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner take and use those familiar beats to find some new ones as well, in this classically loved story which is pretty much the same. and The one thing I couldn’t help thinking is it might not actually be the greatest story ever told. Girl meeting boy from wrong side of the tracks, and falls in love in what seems like minutes, then they run away together to avoid family strife and a street gang fight. Which is of course not successful as the fight between the Jets (white immigrants) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) is one of the major plot points and highlights of the film.

Early on, we get our first conflict between the rival gangs, which introduces us to Riff played by one of the Broadway play breakouts, the truly wonderful Mike Faist – who as the quick-tempered Jets leader, is so desperate to protect the neighborhood. Then we have Ansel Elgort as Tony, the former leader of the Jets attempting to find a new path for his life after spending a year in prison for nearly killing an Egyptian immigrant in a rumble, with all the singing skills and charisma of a wet blanket. Rounding out the men’s side is David Alvarez as Bernardo, Maria’s older brother and proud leader of the Sharks – whose goal is to carve out a place in the new land as equal citizens. And then there is Chino, Maria’s ‘date’ to the dance who is clearly enamored with her, played by Josh Andres Rivera. And the dance is also the first run-in with local cops, Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) and Lt. Schrank(Corey Stoll), neither of whom care what happens to whom, just as long as it doesn’t happen on their watch. But make no mistake here who rules this movie as I’m getting to that. I covered the men and again, Faist as Riff is wonderful and a force to be reckoned with throughout the movie. But the character of Tony (Elgort) is dry and listless, and Bernardo (Alvarez), who while he can dance and sing well, just had something missing from his portrayal. Maybe I just had too much 1961 Bernardo (George Chakiris) imagery in my head, but he just didn’t do it for me. In a way most things related to the Jets were a bit on the insufferable side, and to be honest, most of the Sharks were as well. And you ask why.. well it should come as no surprise that the ladies here do all the heavy-lifting.

Which leads me into getting into the nitty gritty of this film and that my friends is hands down the three amigas all giving such strong performances. This is Zegler, DeBose, and Moreno’s movie without a doubt. This film is by far ruled in every way possible by first-time star Rachel Zegler as Maria, whose voice is a massive revelation that I don’t think too many saw coming. Also, the other straight-from-the- Broadway production actress Ariana DeBose as Anita, who is so fierce when she takes the lead on “America”, she makes one of the most inspiring and fun musical numbers ever on screen. In addition to her singing and beyond terrific dancing skills, DeBose delivers a superb performance in the role that won an historic Oscar for none other than the original herself, Rita Moreno in the 1961 film. Speaking of the one and only Rita Moreno, who is still wonderful and beautiful at 89 years old – she also appears as Valentina, the widow of Doc as she now runs Doc’s Drug Store and is somewhat of a surrogate mother-figure to Tony. It’s certainly no cameo, and though there is no dance number, she does get to sing “Somewhere”, and breaks your heart with her version and this time she is on the valiant end of the rape scene. She is the connection to the original film that gives this film a presence where needed.

And while this is the update Spielberg version, you have to give kudos to Justin Peck for some truly masterful work that builds on the brilliance of what Jerome Robbins originally created. It’s not perfect by any means, from the casting of a more actual ethnic cast – as in no makeup to make anyone ‘look’ like something they are not; to the role of Anybodys’, a non-binary, always watchful character played by Iris Menas; to the Spanish dialogue without subtitles where the strong acting and situations make clear what the scenes are whether you do or don’t speak the language. But to my mind, if you’re going to do a re-make and make positive changes, then why keep the slurs of character words still in there – why make a scene completely of Jets where they gain sympathy in the police station? But again, these overlooked parts is what made it not perfect for me – still highly enjoyable, with just beautiful dance scenes where you see such colour and grit.

At the end, you realize it’s a nostalgic, yet contemporary version that may not have you completely charmed in one way or another, but it WILL have you in awe with the story, dancing, music, acting, and story.

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Review Screening ~ Monday, November 29, 2021

“WEST SIDE STORY” is in theaters beginning on December 10, 2021