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Movie Review ~ West Side Story (2021)

Rachel Zegler as Maria in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY, directed by Steven Spielberg. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The Facts:

Synopsis: An adaptation of the 1957 Oscar-winning musical explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose, David Álvarez, Josh Andrés Rivera, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Mike Faist, Ana Isabelle, Jamila Velazquez, Paloma Garcia Lee, Maddie Ziegler, Talia Ryder, Ben Cook, Kevin Csolak, Annelise Cepero, Kyle Allen, Kyle Coffman, Kellie Drobnick, Brittany Pollack, Yurel Echezarreta, Curtiss Cook, Jamie Harris

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 156 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Much like movie fans are oft-asked what their favorite movie is, musical theater aficionados get put in the difficult position of having to select their most beloved work from the stage and let me tell you…it does get hard to choose at times.  Any number of landmark pieces can be put into the top slots but in all fairness to the modern greats like Hamilton, RENT, HAiR, and yes, even London invasions like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, there’s nothing quite like what I feel are the crown jewels: 1959’s Gypsy and 1957’s West Side Story.  It’s no coincidence that both share several of the same creative minds, both were directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins and had lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents.  It’s the music that sets them apart, though, and while Jule Styne’s tunes for Gypsy have stood the test of time, it’s impossible to imagine a world without the gorgeous West Side Story compositions from Leonard Bernstein.

The 1961 film version of West Side Story was a boffo hit, nominated for a mother-lovin’ load of Oscars (11) and winning 10, including Best Picture.  While it hasn’t aged the best in certain areas (some of the Puerto Rican characters were played by white actors in brown face), much of the movie remains a high-water mark in movie musical history for many film and musical fans alike.  Though it was itself a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the streets of what was then considered a gritty take on New York, sequences and images from the movie have been lifted in whole or in part for other projects over the years.  Revivals have even borrowed some elements but from what everyone reports, the magic of that original production (which actually lost the Best Musical Tony Award to The Music Man, another finely crafted work) has never been matched. 

Leave it to what many consider the best director working today to give modern audiences, really a new generation, their own version of West Side Story that isn’t a remake and isn’t a revisionist take on what has come before.  Oscar-winner Steven Spielberg has long wanted to direct a musical and the dream is fulfilled for him and us with this absolutely glorious re-interpretation of West Side Story that breathes new life into a show that’s well over 60 years old.  With a new script from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner (Lincoln) that fleshes out characters that once were barely one dimensional, the film is deeper, more dangerous, and therefore more courageous in its risks and greater in its ultimate reward for the viewer.

I must admit I was more than a little dubious when I heard Spielberg and Kushner were taking this on as a project, for a few reasons.  Why, of all the films to remake, would Spielberg (JAWS) want to go down this route and take Kushner along for the ride?  I’m to the point where I think the best case for a remake is only where the original was left lacking in major areas and therefore a fresh set of eyes/ears/hands could function as a way to fix it.  Admittedly the ’61 film lived in a kind of patina of my memory and I didn’t want anyone (even one of my favorite directors) to mess around with it. So…perhaps I was being a bit precious with it. Then again, it’s West Side freaking Story!

Why did I ever doubt that Spielberg had this type of movie in him?  From the moment (the very moment) the movie begins, with that shiver-inducing whistle, I felt something release inside me and I knew instantly this West Side Story was something special.  Kushner’s script doesn’t just improve upon the original screenplay, it enhances it to the point where it could function wonderfully independent of the songs that have had their Bernstein orchestrations masterfully retained.  Yet musically it remains tied intrinsically as a star-crossed tale of two sweethearts from opposite sides that meet by chance, fall in love by fate, and are united by the power of those that oppose their union.

In the Upper West Side of New York (given even more clever specificity by Spielberg, Kushner, and production designer Adam Stockhausen, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the Jets and the Sharks are gangs of hothead teenagers in a constant battle for ownership of their neighborhood.  The white American Jets don’t like the Puerto Ricans Sharks moving in with their families and taking over the shops that once belonged to theirs.  Systemic racism, likely passed down by their parents and reinforced by daily life, have developed the boys from both sides into hard-nosed youths forced to take on problems that far exceed their age.  According to Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll, First Man), most of them will end up dead or in prison…but if this is the neighborhood where they will spend their days, both gangs want to be in control.

Reformed Jet Tony (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) has seen the worst of himself and vowed not to follow that path. Working for Valentina (Rita Moreno, Rio 2, an Oscar-winner for the first movie now playing a role created by Kushner, replacing the former one known as Doc), his focus is to get good, make right, and leave his former life behind.  Easier said that done.  When he’s convinced to join his friend and current Jet leader Riff (Mike Faist) at a mixer with a promised heavy Shark presence, he can’t know he’s about to meet a force that will change his life in unexpected ways. 

Maria (Rachel Zegler, making one of the more impressive debuts in memory) is a recent arrival to America, living with her brother Bernardo (David Álvarez) and his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose, the role for which Moreno won her Oscar), a seamstress.  She’s tagging along to the dance with her date, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), but locks eyes with Tony in one of the musical’s more famous moments and what Spielberg turns into a real stunner.  That electricity the two feel seems to crackle right off the screen, making it easier for us to understand what’s happening for the soon-to-be-couple.  Of course, a boy from the Jets loving a girl from the Sharks is not acceptable and the consequences for such a choice extend far beyond the simple street brawls the teens have been used to.

Those that know the show won’t have to worry about their songs being messed around with too much.  Only several have been altered in any major way and I think the effect is more positive than blasphemous.  I won’t spoil it for you but one of the most famous numbers in the show, always a huge dance performance, has been given to a totally different character with their own agenda and it works so well because Kushner and Spielberg have done their work setting it up before we get there.  America, Gee, Officer Krupke, I Feel Pretty, etc, all are performed beautifully by a cast that vibrates with energy and freedom of spirit, and it doesn’t hurt they are easy on the eyes as well. 

Having seen the film often and even taken in the controversial Broadway revival back in 2020 (which, side note, I thought was incredible and should have re-opened in NYC so more people could have experienced its risk-taking changes), I was still an emotional wreck not just at the end but throughout the film.  Even knowing what will transpire I remained on the edge of my seat at all times, and I can’t remember the last time that happened while watching West Side Story.  What Spielberg and this extraordinary company of actors, musicians, and technicians have done is one for the record books.  I’m excited to see this one again with a larger audience to hear how it goes over and I have a feeling it could be a solid winner when awards are handed out – possibly even snagging the most Oscar nominations of the year.  How wonderful would it be for Moreno and the film to again take Best Picture.  And you know what?  They’d both deserve it.

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