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West Side Story (2021) Movie Review

West Side Story (2021) movie poster West Side Story

Theatrical Release: December 10, 2021

Running Time: 156 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay); Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim (musical)

Cast: Ansel Elgort (Tony), David Alvarez (Bernardo), Ariana DeBose (Anita), Mike Faist (Riff), Rita Moreno (Valentina), Rachel Zegler (Maria), Brian d'Arcy James (Officer Krupke), Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank), Josh Andres Rivera (Chino), Iris Menas (Anybodys), Mike Iveson (Glad Hand), Jamila Velazquez (Meche), Annelise Cepero (Provi), Yassmin Alers (Lluvia), Jamie Harris (Rory), Curtis Cook (Abe), Paloma Garcia-Lee (Graziella)


Steven Spielberg hasn’t had anything to prove in about thirty years. A man with his track record doesn’t have to answer any questions or quell any doubts. He doesn’t even have to kowtow to streaming services, whose validity as cinema he called into question a few years ago.
On the eve of his 75th birthday, Spielberg can do literally whatever he wants. And what he wanted to do now was a new West Side Story, adapted from the iconic stage musical which won Best Picture and nine other Academy Awards the last time it was adapted for the screen in 1961.

Remaking classic films is generally a losing battle. It’s a lot easier to redo a film that isn’t well-known or well-loved than it is to try to top perfection. Spielberg knows this and still chose this over countless other projects for the taking, securing a Christmastime opening in wide release. With a reported net worth of nearly four billion dollars, Spielberg couldn’t be doing this for the money. With only three Oscars to his name (two for Schindler’s List and Best Director for Saving Private Ryan), maybe Spielberg was doing this for prestige. Maybe he loves the award season circuit, having been a part of it six times this century in about as many outings. West Side Story is perfectly timed for such a run. But from everything we know about Spielberg the director, the attraction to this remake likely spawned from a pure cinematic love. He was fourteen when Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s movie musical opened in theaters and the older I get the more I realize just how special the art we find in our early teenage years becomes and remains.

It’s not as if the musical couldn’t stand to reach a new audience. My own estimation of the 1961 film is shaped as much by turn-of-the-century Gap commercials and an episode of “Flight of the Conchords” as it is by the film itself. The music by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, has retained a cultural weight and reach above and beyond what most stage musicals ever know. You probably know “I Feel Pretty” and “In America” even if you’ve never seen this musical before. But Spielberg’s new take provides many with a genuine opportunity to assign visuals to the songs they know, because no movie, not even an awards-sweeping blockbuster embraced as a generation-defining tale, stays in the public consciousness and on the world’s screens regularly for sixty years.

Riff (Mike Faist) leads the Jets, a tough, limber 1950s New York City street gang in Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story."

Helping out with the Herculean task of revisiting this epochal classic is Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright he has also collaborated with Spielberg on Munich (2005), Lincoln (2012), and The Fabelmans, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film slated to open next Thanksgiving. You expect Kushner, who is ten years Spielberg’s junior, to approach the material with similar respect and reverence, which he does.
But the scribe also manages to tastefully smooth out some dated aspects to keep it relevant today. We still get gangs who snap and prance around the streets of mid-Manhattan in the '50s, but it’s somehow not laughable or hopelessly corny the way you fear it would be. Spielberg and company have not rewritten the narrative that is clearly inspired by another play of enduring cultural relevance, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The themes of both – young love, prejudice towards that which is different – remain as universal as ever and they go a long way to ensuring we are along for the ride, no matter how ridiculous it may seem at times (which, surprisingly, is not very).

Spielberg and company do well in the casting department. This was never going to be a film of tremendous star power, but the production landed a talent at the center many could get behind in Ansel Elgort, the compelling lead of Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars. In the time since this was filmed, Elgort has since attracted some negativity over misconduct reports he’s had to address. Though his name rhymes with “cancel”, the online chorus has not quite reached a volume loud enough to assign him such an irreversible fate. More charismatic and sympathetic than many young actors who might have filled such a coveted role, the 27-year-old Elgort does not announce himself as a triple threat here, nor does he elevate the drama in ways you would like. As in the 1961 film, Elgort’s parolee Tony, a central figure of the Jets, and his love interest Maria (Rachel Zegler, a veteran of YouTube who’s new to acting), connected to the Jets’ rival Puerto Rican gang the Sharks, are somewhat overshadowed by the more fiery personalities around them. They include Maria’s protective older brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), a boxer; his lover Anita (Ariana DeBose); and Riff (Mike Faist), the Jets’ hot-headed leader.

All of these supporting actors impress us more than our romantic leads do, but none of them manage to endear the way that Rita Moreno does. Moreno, the Oscar-winning Anita from the original movie who turns 90 this weekend, plays Tony’s widowed surrogate mother Valentina, a role reversal from the original play in which the pharmacist Doc was the widower. Moreno sings and acts as the aged voice of reason, exuding not frailty but wisdom and strength. I would be shocked if she doesn’t pick up a second Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars, sixty years after the first and, despite a modest amount of screentime, she could even win, which would make for a glorious Hollywood story.

The white gang the Jets and the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks clash over their shared endangered territory and tensions run thick at a school dance.

As a whole, this new West Side Story keeps us entertained throughout its substantial runtime while wowing us on a technical level. Spielberg and his go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski repeatedly come up with inventive ways to stage the action. You never get less than full creative effort from these artists. It’s long been easy to take that aspect of Spielberg for granted, but when you consider that it’s been almost fifty years since Jaws, you do need to stop and marvel at how long and how substantially he has contributed to this magnificent art form. While the director’s modern output may not inspire the long lines and fan fervor of the Indiana Jones movies and Jurassic Park, they continue to inspire with an abundance of craft, passion, and just pure love of cinema. How amazing it is for a filmmaker of such distinction to be pushing himself to grow in his mid-seventies, making his very first musical with nothing but complete command.

Why West Side Story? Why now? These are the questions only now a few select journalists might get to ask Spielberg. The movie itself never fully answers them and I doubt whatever response Spielberg has come up with will make as much sense to us as it does to him. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s as simple as he can do whatever he wants and what he wanted was to revisit a childhood favorite (he dedicates this to his dad). He does as fine a job as any filmmaker might have in 2021 and with the exception of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who gave us four this year!), no one else seems very interested in adding to the storied and still alluring tradition of movie musicals.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: BelfastKing RichardGhostbusters: Afterlife
Starring Ansel Elgort: Baby Driver | New York Musicals: NewsiesJersey Boys

Directed by Steven Spielberg:
Ready Player OneThe PostBridge of SpiesLincolnWar Horse
The TerminalAmistadIndiana Jones: The Complete AdventuresJaws

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Reviewed December 9, 2021.

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