West Side Story, 2021.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Rita Moreno, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Josh Andrés Rivera, Mike Faist, Ana Isabelle, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Maddie Ziegler, Andrea Burns, Kyle Allen, Curtiss Cook, Jamie Harris, Iris Menas, Sean Harrison Jones, Patrick Higgins, Julius Anthony Rubio, Ricardo Zayas, Sebastian Serra, Carlos Sánchez, Falú Jamila Velazquez, and Talia Ryder.
Two youngsters from rival New York City gangs fall in love, but tensions between their respective friends build toward tragedy.
Racial tension unquestionably plays a large part in the early street gang rivalry between the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, but legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg also uses West Side Story to examine gentrification’s role in that dynamic set during early 1960s New York City. A crucial line of dialogue suggests that these factions don’t hate one another; instead, they have been forced into a repeated confrontation over shrinking territory.
It’s a sentiment that reverberates throughout the timeless story (which itself is already a riff on Romeo and Juliet), as Steven Spielberg works alongside his Lincoln and Munich screenwriter Tony Kushner (adapting the stageplay from Arthur Laurents and effectively remaking the 1961 Best Picture victor from Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, once again utilizing music from Leonard Bernstein and both original and new song lyrics from recently deceased musical theatre titan Stephen Sondheim, who I can only assume adored what he saw if he got to see the movie before passing) to strengthen the dialogue, motives, and arcs of nearly every character.
Naturally, given the 60-year gap between cinematic interpretations of West Side Story, there’s also room to significantly update the Puerto Rican representation when it comes to culturally appropriate casting (I love Natalie Wood just as much as the next person, but such things are a blemish on the original adaptation if one is to reassess it in the context of modern times), the lives of these hooligans beyond their dedication to their respective gang, and offer a more balanced screen time to both factions, especially humanizing and authenticating the Puerto Ricans so that they no longer occasionally feel like caricatures. There is also a more brutal kick in fisticuffs, trading balletic violence for something fittingly rougher and bursting with rage.
However, no change is more strikingly beneficial than Steven Spielberg’s rearranging of the song order, often placing musical numbers in unexpected places of the story that instantly click in their new spot, giving additional deeper context to these characters. Equally notable are the altered locations for the singing and dancing, which allow for a greater sense of community or sometimes simply an imaginative playground for maximum direct oriole style, glowingly radiant and magically majestic thanks to excellent work from costume designer Paul Tazewell, production design from Adam Stockhausen, stunning choreography from Justin Peck, and astonishing cinematography from Janusz Kaminski that is everything from methodically selective, gracefully swirling, and electrifyingly dynamic.
The story itself remains unchanged, a testament to how an extra line here and there, replacing a character (Rita Moreno also appears in this remake taking on the role of the drugstore owner which has been tinkered with and expanded), reshuffling some songs, and of course, giving it all to arguably the greatest American director of all time can serve as the ingredients to a remake that surpasses the already landmark quality of its predecessor. With that in mind, Ansel Elgort takes on the role of Tony (and if you’re looking for a critical bashing of his controversial personal life, you are reading the wrong review, although I will say he is the weakest link and has a few wooden line deliveries) as the former head of the Jets. That was until he served a year in prison for coming within an inch of murdering a Puerto Rican man, something he regrets and has repented every day since. Deep down, he is also not like his prejudiced comrades, which Rita Moreno’s Valentina sees in him as she provides him work while on parole, simultaneously encouraging his budding romance with a woman on the opposing team, so to speak, and stressing that trouble might follow him regardless of his noble and pure intentions.
Of course, that woman is Maria (Rachel Zegler delivering a tremendous breakthrough performance in terms of both emotion and her established presence as a singer), brother of the Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez, another fantastic newcomer outing). Swept up in young love at first sight at a dance organized for both sides, Ansel Elgort charms as Rachel Zegler brims with exuberant life, with the latter remaining the more levelheaded of the duo in that they likely will never be able to be together really. Their unison will only bring forth more fighting, especially as Bernardo instantly disapproves while seeing them dance (he would rather have his sister date nonviolent crewmember Chino, played by Josh Andrés Rivera). Fortunately, Maria does have Bernardo’s family-desiring girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose successfully imbuing further complexity to the role Rita Moreno won an Oscar for) on her side, both sharing optimism for America. Maria is presented as more independent and ambitious despite falling hard for Tony, whereas Anita’s excitement for an opportunity in America is given a more complicated and satisfying arc.
Meanwhile, the new leader of the Jets, Riff (a powerful Mike Faist who takes being on gang member for life deathly seriously, partially because he has nothing else to latch onto and doubly so with the ongoing gentrification, feeling his current way of living threatened), pressures Tony into re-joining the ranks and participating in an upcoming “Rumble” between the gangs. Unsurprisingly, Tony is disinterested and would prefer spending time with Maria away from both groups (some of the best or reworked scenes allow for a better sense of who these people are and why they become lost in one another, although it’s still the least underdeveloped aspect of the narrative). If he can find a way to stop the all-out brawl from happening, maybe these star-crossed lovers will find happiness with both gangs redirecting their anger at law enforcement (Corey Stoll and Brian d’Arcy James take on the roles of Officer Krupke and Lieutenant Schrank) and the system exponentially raising their hatred for one another.
On a more minor but no less meaningful note, this version of West Side Story contains a more thoughtful approach to the tomboy Anybodys, who here appears to be a boy portrayed by non-binary actor Iris Menas(or at the very least, someone yet to transition for sure that they are male), rounded out with a touching scene of acceptance. Of all the ways to update aspects of these characters, this feels like the most obvious one, but it doesn’t take away from its impact.
Again, it’s just another example of how Steven Spielberg’s approach to West Side Story starts from a place of honoring the gripping tale of doomed romance at the core and iconic lyrics from Stephen Sondheim while expanding and strengthening every conceivable detail and character. Put it all together with marvelous, arresting, showstopping direction, whether it’s heated dialogue exchanges or reimagined and brilliantly placed musical numbers, and it amounts to a cinematic treat that surpasses the original. Even on its own, this interpretation of West Side Story stands 200 stories high; it’s that good.
R.I.P. Stephen Sondheim
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com