West Side Story (2021) Movie Review: Spielberg Keeps It Real

In Steven Spielberg’s vision of 1950s New York City, the West Side resembles a bombed-out warzone. That’s largely due to toppled slums being razed to make way for construction of the Lincoln Center, but even without that activity the Upper West Side looks much worse for wear. The people and places all carry an ever-present layer of grime that signals the quiet desperation of the neighborhood, with rust and peeling paint as unifying design elements. Against this dreary backdrop, hopeless young people take pride only in belonging to their tribes, squabbling over territory rights to decaying properties they’ll never own.

Enter young Tony (Ansel Elgort), a reformed thug freshly released from a year-long jail stint for assault. He’s trying to make a new path for himself, avoiding gang life and working hard at the neighborhood store owned by a wise Puerto Rican lady labeled an “old witch” by his old crew, Valentina (Rita Moreno). While his previous friends fall deeper into a pit of their own making, Tony is determined to break the cycle and stay on a righteous path.

Spielberg’s assured, measured direction takes a full half hour before introducing Tony’s shining beacon of hope, the lovely and innocent Maria (Rachel Zegler), who instantly captures his heart at a dance. She’s also looking for a way to change the narrative, shunning the advances of her arranged date, Chino, as well as the expected future he represents. Tony and Maria’s inevitable romance ignites the simmering war between the rival white and Puerto Rican gangs, setting off conflicts and repercussions that will mar the neighborhood more than the wrecking balls ever could.

While the romance is the centerpiece of the story, the supporting cast does much of the heavy lifting, fleshing out what could have been one-dimensional roles into nuanced, fully realized characters. Chief among them is the leader of the Jets, Riff (Mike Faist), a wiry, seemingly frail young man slowly being consumed by his dark, dangerous streak, something like a young Sinatra crossed with the punk rock edge of Joe Strummer. Faist is a revelation in the role, commanding complete attention of the screen for every second of his screen time.  

He’s joined in the “where did that remarkable actor come from” camp by David Alvarez, playing the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo. He likely brings such believability to his role because he’s been out of the industry for most of his young life, winning a Tony at 14 before turning his back on entertainment, joining the Army for three years and then backpacking around Mexico for another three years until his old agent tracked him down to send in an audition tape for this role. He makes the most of his second shot with a powerful, menacing performance, not quite reaching the heights of Faist but clearly establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with in the future.

And then there’s Rita Moreno. What could have been a courtesy cameo for the returning veteran from the original 1961 movie has instead been expanded out into a sizable new supporting role and a tear-inducing solo song that should be plenty to net her another supporting actress Oscar. Her role as Valentina is the Yoda to Elgort’s Tony, the only respected elder around, and the unifying force of the neighborhood as she tries to keep the peace between the rival factions. Moreno still has the chops to pull it off, putting in a thoroughly satisfying performance with a sparkle in her eyes as she winds down her amazing career.

Her original role of Anita is played by Broadway heavyweight Ariana DeBose this time around, a strong casting choice that allows DeBose to fully display her triple threat musical theatre talents. She’s perhaps a touch too theatrical next to the solidly realistic approach of her screen boyfriend Alvarez and his rival Faist, but it’s great fun to see her exquisite professionalism in action.

The key lead role of Maria is beautifully played by virtual unknown Rachel Zegler in her screen debut, casting so perfect it seems like she was manufactured for the part. She has a lovely voice and handles her acting responsibilities well, making her a likely Oscar nominee, although probably not enough to overcome some controversy about her ethnic background. She’s Colombian and Polish, leading to some rumblings from the Puerto Rican community that will likely diminish her awards chances.

Ok, but can Baby Driver sing and dance? Shockingly, the answer is yes, with some reservations. Elgort is a far better singer than you’d ever imagine, although his limited dancing is fairly unconvincing. While he mostly pulls off the role, there’s something about him that just seems out of place, whether it’s the somewhat lackluster chemistry with his Maria, or simply his general oafishness, he comes off as a tall goober who just doesn’t have the charisma to fully nail the part. I was pleasantly surprised by his pipes, but the rest of his performance was just about what I expected from him.

Tony Kushner’s script is fairly faithful to the original, with two notable exceptions: the very welcome addition of the Valentina character and story (replacing Doc from the original), and the painfully forced change of the minor character Nobodys from a tomboy to transgender. Although she desperately wants to be accepted into the Jets as a boy, she adds nothing to the story, and only acts as a distraction as she quite glaringly fails to pass as male. The film already centers on racial tolerance, there was no compelling need to add sexual orientation tolerance into the mix. The character’s change has already led to the film being banned in parts of the Middle East, an unfortunate and completely avoidable development. There’s also an ugly scene with Anita being trapped by the Jets that veers dangerously close to gang rape, serving little purpose other than to make one question what Kushner hoped to achieve with it.

Another questionable decision was Spielberg’s directive that the frequent Spanish spoken in the film was not to be subtitled, as he didn’t want English to “take away the power” of the Spanish language. With that decision in place, it will be interesting to see how they handle the subtitles for the home video release. It’s not too hard to figure out what’s happening even if your Spanish is inadequate, but the lack of full comprehension is more of an annoyance than a celebration of language.

My biggest gripe remains the same for most later Spielberg productions: the washed out, bland cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. I will never understand what Spielberg sees in Kaminski’s technique. He’s somehow managed to make this new movie look older and dingier than the Technicolor delights of the original, to such an extent it might as well just be shot in black and white. Sure, that supports Spielberg’s emphasis on gritty realism, but it doesn’t make for a good-looking movie. The shots of rubble that open the film immediately bring to mind the bombed-out remains of war-torn Europe in Saving Private Ryan, while the totally undersaturated reds and blues of the rival gang attire are so lightly defined in his lens they’re nothing more than hints of tribal affiliation. There’s also a substantial amount of lens flare this time around for no reason, as if he’s been studying the works of J. J. Abrams for pointers.

Those quibbles aside, the overall film is a remarkable achievement that is sure to be remembered as worthy of its own reimagining 6o years from now. There’s so much Spielberg gets right in this daunting and daring reinterpretation of a cinematic classic that any shortcomings are forgiven long before the final frame. He’s assembled an absolutely stunning work that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Spielberg wisely retains Leonard Bernstein’s classic score, with some adaptation by David Newman, this time performed by the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestras under the direction of veteran conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The music sounds fantastic, played with conviction by musicians who undoubtedly have extensive experience with the works since the score has been a hoary chestnut in orchestral repertoires for many decades now. 

All of the original Broadway show’s songs are present, although they’ve been restaged in various ways. The most noticeable change is that “Gee, Officer Krupke” is sung by the Jets within a lockup at the NYPD rather than on the streets. “America” takes place in the day on the sunny streets instead of at night on the rooftops. “I Feel Pretty” is staged in a Gimbels department store instead of a bridal shop, and is a particularly harsh transition taking place immediately after a pivotal gang fight. Choreography has been completely reimagined for this production by Justin Peck, bringing muscular, streetwise power to the moves without forgetting the film’s era. 

Spielberg proves to be adept at filming a musical, and is probably the only living director who could have pulled it off this successfully, as his 50+ year directorial experience bridges the gap between classic Hollywood and modern theatrical expectations. He’s to be commended for trying and succeeding in a new genre in his 70s, and for marshaling such fantastic performances from his talented cast. That’s really what he brings to the musical genre: his version is very much a film first and a musical second, with an emphasis on deeply moving acting performances and authenticity rather than overblown musical numbers. While the original movie’s cast of preening ballet dancers were so far from dangerous they looked like they couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag, Spielberg’s version has a very clearly defined edge that completely sells the idea that these gangs are deadly.

West Side Story opens in theaters on Friday, December 10th.

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Steve Geise

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