West Side Story
West Side Story

West Side Story Review – A Cinematic Master Delivers a Superior Musical

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When Steven Spielberg announced his intentions to make another film version of the 1957 musical West Side Story, the scepticism was unavoidable. The fair argument was made: do we need this?

The original musical from Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (book), and Jerome Robbins (directed and choreographed the original production) is a staple of the American musical pantheon, consistently played to audiences across the world in professional and amateur productions. The 1961 film, co-directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sound of Music) was the highest grossing movie of 1961, winning 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor for George Chakiris, and Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno. That film, like its original musical basis, redefined what movie musicals could tackle in terms of subject matter and tone, presenting Latin-American culture on screen in a way that had never been done before.

The story itself is already well known even if you’ve never seen it. A modern (for the play’s 1950s conception) retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the West Side of New York City, depicting the war of two gangs, the Jets (Caucasian kids) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican immigrants), and the star-crossed love of Tony and Maria that causes a destructive conflict which no one can avoid.

Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, before his passing late last year, had several retrospective criticisms of the hollow protagonists and several lyrics that were dated and incorrect even at the time of writing. He always sought opportunities to tinker with and improve characters and ideas presented in the show. As for the film, while the ideas of immigration life and racial conflict are front and centre in 1961, we still have most of the main Latinx characters played inaccurately. George Chakiris as Bernardo is a Greek actor who had his skin darkened to be more “appropriate”, Rita Moreno as Anita also had her skin darkened even though Moreno is originally from Puerto Rico, and Natalie Wood is just doing a rather mediocre Hispanic accent. It presents a distinctly dated Hollywood version of Puerto Ricans and diverse American life, with the film’s screenplay criticised at the time by Pauline Kael as being “painfully old-fashioned and mawkish”. All of these criticisms are fair.

It is where the opportunities open up for Spielberg’s film, a reimagining and not a remake. The cast of the Sharks, while not all being Puerto Ricans, is made of ethnically appropriate performers, many of whom this is their first film experience. Anita is not only played by an actor appearing in their natural skin colour, but the character here played by Ariana DeBose has her Afro-Latina heritage factor into the deeper look at the xenophobia within the Jets. Screenwriter and stage master Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) juxtaposes the story of the Jets and the Sharks fighting over the Lincoln Square (or San Juan Hill) territory with the historical reality that the whole area was being demolished to make way for Lincoln Center, which stands today. Spielberg and Kushner also deepen characters who have open opportunities for depth, most apparent with Tony but also changing the character Anybodys to be gender fluid, reflected in the casting of non-binary performer Iris Menas.

Ansel Elgort does an admirable job in the role of Tony, but he is the weakest aspect of the film. This is a combination of the character, with added backstory of almost murdering someone in a previous rumble and spending a year in prison for it, still not being the most interesting character in the story, but it is also Elgort’s performance. He sings well, rather beautifully nailing numbers like “Maria” and “One Hand, One Heart”, but his emotional range can feel rather limited. He has effective chemistry with Rachel Zegler’s Maria, but can feel too blank and standard in other scenes with other characters. It isn’t a destructive issue, but it is the one major criticism I have with the film.

Ariana DeBose is a revelation as Anita. She sings with incredible grace and passion, moves like a bolt of lightning with sound and fury, and delivers the emotional aspects with devastating skill. To not only honour Rita Moreno’s original performance, but to enhance the character, proudly developing her as a complex Afro-Latina woman, steadfast yet betrayed by the American reality, it is a performance of staggering quality and one of the very best I’ve seen in 2021.

Mike Faist as Riff, David Alvarez as Bernardo, Iris Menas as Anybodys, and Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino all deliver stellar work portraying characters with refocused and much more effective depth and complexity. Faist and Alvarez each deliver a charm and charisma but also a darkness and emotional honesty that was overwhelming to witness, both actors exuding a confidence honed by their history with Broadway and musical theatre. Iris Menas does an exceptional job giving a depth and interest to Anybodys, a character before that you wouldn’t be wrong for calling “annoying”. It is beautiful representation to make the character non-binary and cast the appropriate Menas, and I hope to see more efforts like this taken by filmmakers. Rivera’s Chino doesn’t get a song to sing nor a musical number to share (beyond a cute dance during the “Mambo”), but while staying in the background for the most part, he builds up a distance until the moment he steps up to do what he thinks is right and destroys everything. He has a tender soul that you want to see unharmed, even when he falls right in line with the curse of violence plaguing the minds of the young.

The legendary Rita Moreno returns to the 2021 film, playing an adjusted version of the “Doc” character, now named Valentina. In a move that resists being nostalgia for those familiar with the 1961 film, Spielberg, Kushner, and Moreno transform “Doc” from a simple voice of reason for Tony into a representation of mixed relationships and the complexities of identity. Valentina is a Puerto Rican woman and married a white man, but she could be seen as a traitor to her people and still isn’t trusted by the Jets boys she’s known for their entire lives. When Moreno is given the chance to sing “Somewhere”, it evolves into not only a cry for Tony and Maria to be at peace with their love, but for Valentina to remember what it felt like to love a man society thought was not appropriate for her. Moreno gives a beautiful performance and warrants her casting a thousand times over, becoming an emotional highlight.

The rest of the supporting cast, over two dozen young performers making up the casts of the Jets and the Sharks, are all brilliant. This is a cast made of the kind of impossible skill and joyous charisma that Steven Spielberg specialises in, but this also advertises that a supporting cast doesn’t have to blend into the background. The guys and girls from both Jets and Sharks are given wonderful opportunities to shine, whether in the “Mambo” dance number, the Jets comedic song “Gee, Officer Krupke”, the famous “America”, or the Puerto Rico anthem “La Borinqueña”, newly added for the film.

But there is one actress whom I have yet to mention, and that is only because the build-up is thoroughly deserved. From the first minute newcomer Rachel Zegler appeared on screen, I knew we were going to witness something extraordinary. I have followed the actress on Twitter since her casting in January 2019, and have already fallen completely for her wit, brightness, and angelic voice. But the reality of her performance is greater than anything I could have predicted. The character of Maria is typically unassuming, often characterised as a naïve girl with too much fantasy in her head. Here, she is a strong-willed and sharp young woman, using her mind and soul to stand up for her own values and desires. She is more interested in living in the world, something more subtly transmitted through Zegler’s expressions than broadly stated. She is a flawed person, taking in and continuing to love the man who killed her brother, but we get a clearer sense that Maria already felt betrayed by her brother’s actions, his death being an act of unconscious fate. She falls for Tony’s charm, but pointedly questions why he thinks Riff and the Jets are more rejected by society than her own people. She wants to feel loved, and does embrace its power, but she is never blinded by it. By the end, we don’t feel that she’ll be a grieving widow for a man she just met, but will live on, scarred by the truth of the land she is trying to call home. It is the finest reconstruction of any character in the story, and Rachel Zegler doesn’t just deliver a performance but a monumental experience. In the words of the late Stephen Sondheim, she sings like a nightingale, with her parts in “Tonight” and “One Hand, One Heart” delivering a heavenly inner light and emotional revelation one cannot expect. It is one of the finest newcomer performances I have ever seen, delivering the elegance of classic Hollywood and the illumination of a modern woman.

West Side Story is a near-perfect film, delivering on the promise of a Steven Spielberg musical with a mighty power. You can feel his love for this story and see how each frame has been carefully constructed, with this being a labour of love he has been making for his entire life. The musical numbers are expertly presented, Josh Peck’s choreography beautifully honouring Jerome Robbins’ pioneering work and Paul Tazewell’s costume design enhances every moment. Where each number is placed in the narrative and why each one has been altered is a fascinating and fantastic thing, like setting “America” outside and in broad daylight to emphasise the life of the city, giving Tony “Cool” to reinforce his desperate plea to stop Riff and the Jets, and having “I Feel Pretty” play after Bernardo’s death to make the revelation for Maria more horrifying. Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar’s editing is precise and perfect, each moment cut together so naturally and succinctly you could argue that you never see a cut.

Janusz Kaminski was already a master of light and shadow as a cinematographer, but his work here is on another level. Every moment has a fluidity and texture, a light behind the frame that enhances every single second, becoming some of Kaminski’s very best work. The new score arrangement by David Newman and conducting by Gustavo Dudamel is a wonderful and respectful reinvigoration of Leonard Bernstein’s work, and Adam Stockhausen’s production design is epic in every sense of the word.

Not only is West Side Story a perfect reimagining of a classic, but is in many ways more of an epic than its 1961 predecessor, acting as its unintentional superior. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner highlight the story’s importance and open up new and thankful areas of complexity and life in the characters and themes, making it more applicable to our modern day than when it was first created. This film was thought impossible, but with wonderful collaborations from crew members working at the absolute height of their power, and a cast of magnificent performers, the impossible is delivered with glorious spectacle. Steven Spielberg re-establishes himself as a true cinematic master, directing in a way which makes you realise what great direction truly is, nobody else operating on his level and delivering his results. West Side Story is close to being the very best film of 2021 (#1 is still The Mitchells vs. the Machines) and is one of Steven Spielberg’s best films, which says so much.

It is unfortunate that this film is a box office disappointment, but much like In the Heights and The Suicide Squad, the numbers don’t matter when the film is this good. In any iteration and any medium, West Side Story will stand the test of time.

Nadine Whitney’s review of WEST SIDE STORY from December 17, 2021.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writer: Tony Kushner (based on the musical by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, and based on “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare)

Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum

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

Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski

Editing: Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar

Music: Leonard Bernstein (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, arranged by David Newman and conducted by Gustavo Dudamel)

(EDITOR’S NOTE: There has been an allegation of assault levelled against Ansel Elgort in 2020. Elgort maintains the relationship was consensual, and the matter has yet to be formally resolved.)

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