West Side Story (2021)

Steven Spielberg took a remake of a classic that nobody needed and defied the odds to make a great movie in its own right. It is a movie musical that stands as an excellent companion to the original.

Books, essays, and documentaries have been made analyzing the craft and skill on display in the original 1961 film West Side Story. From the exquisite score, to the revolutionary camera work, to the powerful story telling, the film stands among the greatest ever made. It is not one lauded and praised, but is also an endearing and entertaining film that can still be thoroughly enjoyed 60 years later.

So why on earth would anyone remake it?

That was the question that kept me out of the movie theater for weeks after this movie premiered. I couldn’t see the point. I had dismissed the film out of hand. After hearing a flood of positive reviews from people I respected I decided to check it out, and I’m glad I did. If anyone out there is thinking like I was, put that aside and check this movie out. It’ll be well worth your time.

For those unfamiliar with the original, here’s a quick breakdown… in Manhattan’s west side, there are two gangs vying for control of their neighborhood and the future of their city. These are the Jets, a predominantly Irish working class group of guys, and the Sharks, a group Puerto Rican’s trying to build a better life for themselves in New York. The rivalry between these two is upended when Tony, played by Ansel Elgort, a founding member of the Jets, falls in love with Maria, played by newcomer Rachel Zegler, the sister of the leader of the Sharks, played by David Alvarez.

West Side Story began its life as an idea that composer Leonard Bernstein had to adapt Romeo and Juliet. He wanted to create an intricate musical world for Romeo and Juliet that would be set in modern day New York. At the time gangs were the great threat and boogeyman in American society. He chose his setting and crafted a beautiful musical that received acclaim and found success. He then took it to Hollywood and adapted his adaptation to film. The movie was a masterpiece that earned an unprecedented 10 Oscars. This movie is credited with getting many of our most prominent filmmakers interested in film among them Steven Spielberg. Now, 60 years later Spielberg has created a remake.

What does Spielberg bring to the story? First and foremost, he brings an authenticity and a grit to the story. The time and place feel authentic and lived in. The neighborhood feels real. He also shifts the story to a slightly different time and place. In the late 50’s there was a push to tear down a certain neighborhood and build a massive arts center. Spielberg sets his story in a neighborhood being demolished. The shifting times and the looming threat of a way of life disappearing is the backdrop of his film. It adds a layer of subtext that informs every minute of the movie. It underlies a lot of the films themes and enriches the narrative.

He also adds a real Puerto Rican perspective to the film that has been missing since Bernstein put pen to paper. Bernstein chose a Puerto Rican gang not as a means of exploring the culture but as a convenient ethnicity to differentiate the gangs. This film lends their story and their culture a lot more weight. A lot has been written about the fact that there are scenes in this film that are in Spanish without subtitles. I really enjoyed hearing the language spoken and the way these performers are able to switch effortlessly between English and Spanish sometimes within a single sentence. It adds a musical poetry to the scenes without actual music.

The musical numbers here are really well done. The America number in particular is brilliant blend of old and new styles. It is a big, splashy, old school musical number with hundreds of people dancing in the streets. The costumes are bright and colorful, and the staging is classic stuff. But the choreography and the editing reflect modern sensibilities. The choreography has a motivation beyond flashy moves. Every action has a motivation and a purpose. The editing is faster and more chaotic than the original, but it isn’t distracting. He holds his wide shots long enough to create a real sense of the performance as a whole.

The fun of watching dance numbers is the joy of seeing dancers perform at the top of their game. When you edit these scenes rapidly and chop them to the bone you lose the performance. Too few modern musicals understand this. Spielberg on the other hand seems to know what makes for a good musical number and edits just the right amount.

The other thing he gets right in regard to the music is that he doesn’t pull a Tom Hooper and force his actors to sing live. That was always a bad decision that resulted in some terrible musical moments, namely all of Cats. Spielberg goes old school and prerecords his actors. This gives them the chance to give the best singer performances they can, but he also doesn’t sacrifice the emotion of the moment and impact fo the performance.

The performers are brilliant across the board with one exception. The stand outs for me are three of the leads, Rachel Zegler is wonderful. She was literally acting in a high school musicals when she started filming West Side Story. Her voice is exquisite. Her acting is wonderful. She has an open and expressive face that conveys so much of her characters inner journey. Ariana DeBose is phenomenal as Anita. She is a veteran of the stage, and she brings a light touch to the comedy and a hammer to the emotional beats. Her duet with Maria toward the end is unbelievably powerful. She knocks it out of the park. David Alvarez, and Mike Faist play Bernardo and Riff respectively. Alvarez is powerful and imposing. He is charming and dangerous. Faist is an extremely unlikely leading man. He has a unique face that looks intimidating and intriguing at all times. He gives Riff a nasty edge without sacrificing the characters charisma.

The weak link here is Ansel Elgort. Ugh he sucks. I could not stand him in this movie. He was a blank slate. He offered nothing. Draw a face on a two by four and you have him in this movie. His singing voice is excellent. He can sing beautifully. He just can’t perform the songs. It really hit me in his song Maria. He’s just fallen in love with Maria, and he’s walking through the streets singing about how wonderful she is and how happy he is, but you’d never know it by looking at his blank impassive face. He is emotionless and stiff. Luckily most of the rest of the cast makes up for it. Zegler carries their scenes together with her emotional presence, but Elgort really left her hanging.

All in all, this is a movie with issues, but is a worthy addition to the West Side Story world. It is a powerful movie in its own right. It has wonderful staging and great cinematography. It updates the story in intelligent and rewarding ways. It is a good movie that deserves an audience. Check this one out.

It is my cup of tea. A-

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