A film review by Craig J. Koban December 24, 2021

Rank: #11

WEST SIDE STORY jjj
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2021, PG-13, 156 mins.

Ansel Elgort as Tony  /  Rachel Zegler as Maria  /  Rita Moreno as Valentina  /  Ariana DeBose as Anita  /  David Alvarez as Bernardo  /  Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank  /  Brian d'Arcy James as Sergeant Krupke  /  Josh Andrés Rivera as Chino  /  Mike Faist as Riff  /  Ana Isabelle as Rosalia  /  Paloma Garcia-Lee as Graziella  /  Maddie Ziegler as Velma  /  Andrea Burns as Fausta  /  Ricardo Zayas as Chago

Directed by Steven Spielberg  /  Written by Tony Kushner, based on the stage play by Arthur Laurents

Even though I loathe remakes in general, it’s really hard for me to overlook Steven Spielberg’s WEST SIDE STORY as a robustly made triumph, which is as confident of a stylistic showcase reel for the 75-year-old Oscar winning filmmaker as any as of late.  

Of course, this is a musical romance period drama based on the 1961 Robert Wise iteration of the 1957 stage musical by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the recently passed on Stephen Sondheim (which, in turn, was loosely inspired by Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET), telling a timeless tale of doomed star crossed lovers and rivalries between ethnic street gangs in mid-1950s New York.   Three things stood out to me in abundance while watching this WEST SIDE STORY redux: (1) How is it that Spielberg has never made a musical over his storied career (despite flirting with the genre in minor sequences in films like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and 1941), (2) this might represent the director at his most youthfully energized and potent in years and (3) this is a lovingly faithful and handsomely produced remake that plants its own unique footprint in a few key areas to make it worthwhile for modern consumption. 

I've always subscribed to the idea that remakes need to honor and respect what has come before while innovatively finding ways to tweak the underlining material to make it feel revitalizing and alive, and Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who penned the most underrated Spielberg drama ever made in 2005's MUNICH) show their great reverence for Wise's film (while wisely acknowledging and correcting some racially insensitive creative choices of that film's era) while also getting to run wild within the aesthetic playground the classical Hollywood musicals of a bygone Golden Age.  Spielberg has always been an astute and passionate scholar of cinema history, and you can really sense the unbridled and liberating joy he has in occupying this new genre space.  And, yes, WEST SIDE STORY is a technical tour de force that sometimes only he is capable of, but it's also quite sensitively rendered and a compassionately engineered remake that, in many respects, tops what has come before.  The overarching narrative and character dynamics of Wise's film is preserved here (this is not an act of a desecrating re-imagining on Spielberg's part), but I was kind of amazed by how well this new iteration manages to come off as both familiar and new in equal measure.  That's always the thorny dilemma of any remake. 

And boy oh boy, does this WEST SIDE STORY ever begin with a sensational bang.  We're quickly introduced to the Big Apple of the 50s with long overhead camera pans that glide over the large metropolis and, in particular, a massive construction site for what will eventually become the Lincoln Center.  It is here where the gangs of this story live and breathe: The Puerto Rican "Sharks" and the mostly Polish and Irish "Jets", and both seem to be engaged in a never-ending power struggle for domination of their neighborhoods.  The Jets pride themselves on being first generation New Yorkers whose parents came overseas before them, whereas the Sharks are recent immigrants that have just arrived (lost on the Jets is that they are the prodigy of immigrants themselves, but good luck telling them that).  The leader of the Jets is Riff (Mike Faist), who is growing increasingly angered at the increased Puerto Rican presence in this town, whereas the Sharks are ruled over by Bernardo (David Alvarez).  A former founder of the Jets is Tony (Ansel Elgort), who has done hard time in prison, but is now on the outside and trying to live a quiet and trouble free life, working at a local convenience store run by Valentina (Rita Moreno, winner of an Oscar for her work in...the original West Side Story). 

 

 

One fateful night at a local dance changes the lives of all of these players forever when Tony locks eyes with the luminous Maria (Rachel Zegler), who rather inconveniently is Bernardo's sister (he has strictly forbidden her to hook up with any white boy).  Despite their obvious cultural differences - and the heated war between the Jets and Sharks - Tony and Maria fall deeply in love, but keep their union a guarded secret from all.  Unfortunately, Riff seems hell bent on re-recruiting Tony back into the Jets for what he sees as an inevitable race/block war to come with the Sharks.  Tony has loyalties to his friends, to be sure, but wants no part of the gang life again and only has eyes on the new love of his life.  Maria too wants the gang violence and turmoil to end, but convincing her hot headed brother in Bernardo to see things her way is a challenge.  And anyone that has read ROMEO AND JULIET will probably be able to deduce what will come of these two lovers in the end. 

The finest and most notable (and well publicized change) that Spielberg has made to WEST SIDE STORY is having a racially appropriate cast for the Sharks and Maria (something that was obviously not done in the 1961 film, mostly because of the heinous white washed casting choices of the era in question).  Re-watching Wise's film and it's glaringly apparent that Natalie Wood is hopelessly not Puerto Rican in any way as Maria, and with the exception of the aforementioned Moreno, the cast of WEST SIDE STORY '61 is pasty white.  It's incredibly welcoming to see that Spielberg cast his film both impeccably well and appropriately with vibrant newcomers leading the charge.  That, and he allows for his ethnic characters to speak frequently in their Puerto Rican tongues throughout the story and without any subtitles at all (this will mostly likeable frustrate many lay filmgoers).  By Spielberg's own admission, he wanted to honor and respect their language, and he certainly has here.  Plus, the actors are so remarkable at facial and body language that many of their scenes of searing drama hardly need translating. 

I also think that Kushner's screenplay take on the original's themes are given more nuance and weight this go around, especially for how the Jet's ill conceived outlook on the Sharks as ruthless outsiders that are destroying the fabric of their neighborhoods.  The racial hostilities in WEST SIDE STORY are very much more potently (and violently) delineated here than what's come before, and you gain an immediate sense of the nail biting tension that ensues when both parties come in contact with one another.  It's just an explosive powder keg of a situation, but it's certainly not painted in broad strokes either.  Many of the characters - especially Bernardo and his wife Anita (played sensationally by Ariana DeBose) are given much more fully fleshed out arcs and backstories that make them less superficial entities within their own story.  The meaninglessness of gang warfare is given just as much prominence here as it was before, as is the accentuated hatred that both key gangs have for one another.  But as a parable about the intense levels of prejudice that immigrants face when coming to America, I would argue that this WEST SIDE STORY simmers with more timeliness than its antecedent did.   

On a pure visual level, WEST SIDE STORY is a masterful tour de force triumph for Spielberg, and his film not only props up (like a badge of genre honor) a level of boisterous Hollywood showmanship and bravado that we don't get much more of anymore, but it also benefits from the filmmaking technologies of today, with its swooshing and swift camera dollies, vivacious editorial style, and the overall manner that this film just sort of flies and glides in and out of scene after scene of these characters rhythmically dancing and singing.  That's not to say that Spielberg assembles everything like a music video (and, dear Lord, that would have been an egregious temptation of a lesser filmmaker at the helm), but rather that he blends old school with new school here in crafting an audacious neo-classical Hollywood musical that makes viewers feel transported to a different time and place (both in terms of the period settings and the movies of the period itself) while utilizing the tricks and tools of the trade that weren't available decades ago.   

The legendary musical numbers that fans of the original want are all here in spirited abundance, and Spielberg understands that straying away too much from these iconic classics would prove too alienating.  He does, however, still imbue his own distinctive stamp on these greatest hits, with "America" being one of the more utterly fantastic highlights of the bunch, during which time we see Anita and her entourage passionately strut and sing their way through the rooftops and streets of New York in ways that make the original's feel stale in comparison (the staging and choreography here is as good as any I've seen in a silver screen musical and is a sight to behold).  Evidently, we still do get the other cherished ballads, like "Tonight" and "Somewhere" that are more effectively low key and understated in direct comparison, mostly because Spielberg really knows how to use close-ups of his actors to help sell the emotion of these scenes.  It's in tender moments like these where newcomer Rachel Zegler truly makes a strong case for herself as being a major movie star in the making.  Spielberg's camera loves her angelic face, but she also has such a commanding range as a vocal talent on top off displaying untapped levels of charisma and sass appeal.  No disrespect to Natalie Wood, but Maria is given a massive actor upgrade here. 

The remarkable supporting cast also does wonders with the well worn material, especially the intensely brooding Faist as his Jets leader, not to mention his chief rival in David Alvarez, who gives as good as he takes from Faist in the film.  Equally wonderful is Ariana DeBose as Bernardo's girlfriend that, like Maria, has been given a thoroughly improved makeover here this go around (she's an absolutely magnetic screen presence), despite having to play the same role that, ironically enough, her co-star in Moreno once made her own in the first WEST SIDE STORY.  And speaking of Moreno, she just may indeed achieve an Academy Award first by getting a nomination for her work here as the neighborhood matriarch that serves as a calm spoken ally and friend to Tony.  There's definitely an ethereal spark that occurs when Moreno and DeBose appear on screen together to share a crucial moment in the story, but I commend how the former's presence here doesn't come off as some sort of shameless piece of fan servicing for those devotees of Wise's film.   

I haven't really spoken about Ansel Elgort too much yet (he is, after all, a crucial ingredient to the central love story here), and even though he has an easy going charm and likeability (as well as some respectably singing chops and genuine chemistry with his co-star in Zegler) he simply and regrettably doesn't have the same level of memorable pizzazz as Tony, and early on in the film I kind of found him to be a bit stiff and mannered.  I think that as WEST SIDE STORY evolved that Elgort's performance matured alongside with it, and he's serviceable in his role of a man with a tormented past that's trying to stay clean while being caught in-between multiple factions,  but he's simply overshadowed by the frankly better performances and actors that surround him here.  There's another obvious elephant in the room that can't be shaken off while watching WEST SIDE STORY:  Did we really need a remake of WEST SIDE STORY to begin with...and from a seasoned vet like Spielberg who could have literally done anything else in his career right now?  I went into this film as a hardcore cynic and felt that this was a waste of Spielberg's talent and time, but I left his remake feeling surprisingly jazzed about what I experienced over the course of its limber and fluid moving 156 minutes.  

Maybe we didn't need a WEST SIDE STORY remake.  Still, I'm elated that I saw it and that Spielberg got to live out a passion project fantasy for decades to dive into a genre that has long eluded him, and he does so here with a nearly unmatched prowess and consummate polish.  WEST SIDE STORY is also a prime example of how a revered classic of yesteryear can be given proper and renewed lease on life with an exemplarily handled remake helmed by just the right passionate filmmaker. 

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