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Film Review: “West Side Story” Gets a Mostly Fine Facelift

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 8th, 2021

Film poster: “West Side Story”

West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.

The musical West Side Story—with a score by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, a book by Arthur Laurents, and choreography by Jerome Robbins—loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, was first staged in 1957. The 1961 film adaptation, co-directed by Robert Wise and choreographer Robbins, is a perennial screen favorite, despite casting issues that saw Natalie Wood (the child of Russian immigrants) and George Chakiris (the child of Greek immigrants) cast as siblings Maria and Bernardo, who are supposed to be Puerto Rican. Then again, Hollywood has a long tradition of applying heavy makeup (call it what it is here, which is “brownface”) to actors of one ethnicity or race to look like someone else. Whether one can forgive those sins of the original movie or not, the music and dancing remain engaging and the story appealing, the star-crossed lovers at the center serving as a call to racial harmony on top of everything else. In the year 2021, enter one Steven Spielberg.

You know the guy, that master filmmaker who, though sometimes prone to oversentimental fluff, has still created such great works as the 1993 Schindler’s List and 1998 Saving Private Ryan (not to mention my childhood favorite, Raiders of the Lost Ark). One thing he had never yet done is make a musical. And one thing I wondered before watching the new West Side Story, is why this one? Not because the original is sacred (see above), but because merely recasting certain central parts might not result in a novel-enough spectacle to justify its existence, given how ingrained in the culture that first version seems to be. Well, I am happy to report that Spielberg and his screenwriter, playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America)—who also wrote Munich and Lincoln for the director—have managed to more than surpass my low expectations.

Rita Moreno in WEST SIDE STORY ©20th Century Studios

In fact, their movie sparkles with life and, even better, new ideas. We still have the sad tale of how Tony and Maria meet cute, fall in love, defy their respective friends and family to pursue a doomed romance, and then watch it all fall apart as deep-seated hatred gets in the way. But what Spielberg and Kushner have done is place the simmering rivalry between the Jets and Sharks gangs against the backdrop of gentrification and the so-called urban renewal projects of Robert Moses. The story is, indeed, set in Manhattan’s West Side, in the late 1950s, as the Lincoln Square neighborhood, just above Columbus Circle, is being torn down to make way for what will become the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The Jets are all children of previous waves of immigrants who have not found success, left behind to watch as the world changes without them. The Sharks, on the other hand, just arrived from Puerto Rico, see promise in the new future, even with the racism and xenophobia they face every day (it should not need reminding that they are also American citizens, of course).

And so, without altering the basic dramatic trajectory we know so well, the new West Side Story contextualizes the events with a rich plethora of details that keeps us watching, even as we know exactly what will happen. It helps that the ensemble is mostly excellent. There’s even a carryover from the 1961 film: Rita Moreno, herself, who played Anita the first time around (and was the only actual Puerto Rican among the principals). 60 years later, still going strong, she plays Doc’s widow, running her late husband’s drugstore. Her presence as a beloved Puerto Rican matriarch among Puerto Rican-hating Jets poses a few head-scratching script problems, but it does allow her a chance to enliven some scenes. Beyond Moreno, however, it’s the young cast that really struts their stuff.

l-r: Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez in WEST SIDE STORY Rita Moreno in WEST SIDE STORY ©20th Century Studios

All hail Ariana DeBose (The Prom), who makes the part of Anita decidedly her own. She can sing, she can dance, she can act (as could and can Moreno) and is always mesmerizing. Opposite her is David Alvarez (Showtime’s American Rust), as Bernardo, and he more than holds his own (and his character is also now a boxer, which is an interesting addition). Rachel Zegler makes her screen debut as Maria, and not only is she fine in the role, but Kushner has given her even more independent ideas than before. Josh Andrés Rivera, also a newcomer, as Chino, does good work, too. On the Jets side, Mike Faist (The Atlantic City Story) shines as Riff, backed up by equally wonderful actors rounding out the gang. And then there’s Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) as Tony, the Romeo of the piece, hopelessly in love with Maria upon initial sight. He can certainly belt out a tune, and he has a kind of presence, but also a leaden charisma, at least compared to everyone else. He’s a pretty major weak spot in an otherwise ebullient show.

For buoyant it is, with marvelous dancing and singing that both pays homage to the past while firmly upgrading to present-day sensibilities. Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, brings his usual artistry to the cinematic table, and the movie also looks terrific, filled with evocative visuals. Still, at some point it begins to drag, maybe from the inevitable familiarity or the weight of Elgort’s Tony (it’s only three minutes longer than the 1961 film, however). Otherwise, it’s a solid update, one that shows that classics can be remade and, if not necessarily made better (which depends on the beholder), then at least made more than watchable and definitely worth watching.

Rachel Zegler in WEST SIDE STORY ©20th Century Studios
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), as well as a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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