REVIEW: West Side Story [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 156 minutes
    Release Date: December 10th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: 20th Century Studios
    Director(s): Steven Spielberg
    Writer(s): Tony Kushner / Arthur Laurents (play book) / Jerome Robbins (play concept)

Life matters even more than love.

It’s tough to know what to expect when a remake of a ten-time Oscar-winner (including Best Picture) like West Side Story is announced. Not even Steven Spielberg being at the helm can help in the grand scheme of things either because you almost wish a talent like his would spend that time on original work instead. The hope is therefore always that the powers that be found an avenue in to make the attempt worthwhile. We pray that purpose rather than profits was the true catalyst and, if we’re being honest, sixty years can guarantee room for improvement does exist. Because while Arthur Laurents‘ play is ultimately a variation on “Romeo and Juliet”, it’s also about race relations—a topic whose depiction was in grave need of updating.

That starts by casting actors of Latino descent in main roles. It doesn’t matter how good Natalie Wood or George Chakiris (he won one of those ten Oscars) were in the original, their presence (despite Puerto Rican Rita Moreno carrying the film on her shoulders to prove brown-face wasn’t necessary) taints the experience. So, the hiring of Rachel Zegler and David Alvarez in those roles was the best first step forward. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner reworking things to bring Moreno back as the owner of Doc’s pharmacy provided legacy. And the conscious decision to update characterizations in ways that don’t turn marginalized communities into punchlines (Anybodys) or dismiss rape as a plot contrivance that doesn’t need acknowledgement only add to this return’s value. Every alteration becomes necessary.

And it’s not just about political correctness. It’s about authenticity and honesty too. The less opportunity you give your audience to point out the glaringly false notes created by an outsider’s vision more interested in how stereotypes can be exploited by plotting than how they destroy investment, the easier it is for us to let the romance take control. That’s what West Side Story is after all. It’s about love for the sake of the heart and nothing else. When the city demands these kids choose sides and segregate themselves, anything good that they find will always carry an asterisk. When your traditions and bigotry demand that you push aside change, you can never grow. Love doesn’t exist for Jets or Sharks. Only loyalty and duty.

That all changes when Tony (Ansel Elgort) and María (Zegler) lock eyes at a school dance. He’s there at the behest of his best friend Riff (Mike Faist)—the leader of white gang The Jets now that Tony left that life behind him after a year-long epiphany in jail for almost killing someone. She’s there because her brother (Alvarez’s Sharks leader Bernardo) and his girlfriend (Ariana DeBose‘s Anita) want to show her a good time now that she’s arrived from Puerto Rico. Duty demands that they stay on their side of the dance floor. Loyalty dictates he stands by Riff’s side at a meeting to set terms for a rumble while she gets to know the hard-working Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) in a quasi-arranged marriage. Both want more.

Everything you remember unfolds in much the same way here. The differences mostly lie in song order (“Cool” is still objectively bad, but it works a lot better as a battle between Tony and Riff that serves as a metaphor for their demons versus hope), Moreno’s Valentina (an intriguing addition that provides Tony an example of romance bridging the racial divide—Doc was white—but also evidence of the very real blind spot created by so-called assimilation and “loyalty” to America as “home”), and the reduction of Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Officer Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) to virtual cameos. We don’t need cops to stoke a fire that’s already burning bright. They are the communal enemy that should bring Jets and Sharks together. Maybe in another life.

Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski go all-out with elaborate dance sequences and set-ups while Leonard Bernstein‘s score plays its motifs in the background between musical numbers. I believe some of Stephen Sondheim‘s lyrics are changed to better fit Kushner’s script alterations, but it’s all content rather than context. Zegler’s “I Feel Pretty” moves from a small dress shop to Gimbels as she and her co-workers clean overnight—the juxtaposition of them against white mannequins driving home its point. “Somewhere” shifts over to Valentina so Moreno gets her moment to shine, taking over from Tony and María. And “America” moves from the rooftops to the streets for a grand showstopping moment reminding me of that other 2021 musical In the Heights. The energy and emotion are electric throughout.

And while the cast knocks these moments out of the park, the standouts for me are the same ones that seem to have grabbed the collective since the film’s release months ago. Love’s pain and struggle for each other is one thing where it concerns Zegler and Elgort, but its hold on DeBose and Faist where their very existence is at stake hits so much deeper. Her Anita loves everything America has to offer that Puerto Rico couldn’t and she’s ready to embrace it like Valentina did on a level Bernardo and the others might not be ready to condone. Is it optimism or naivete? His Riff clings to the idea of “territory” and “ownership” in ways that expose how little he has. Is it hate or fear?

They’re the ones who get betrayed. They’re the victims. Laurents’ Romeo and Juliet merely light the match. Anita is betrayed by Bernardo when he goes off to risk his life. She’s betrayed by America for taking what she loved most in this world. Riff is betrayed by Tony when he dares to try opening his eyes to humanity instead of power. He’s betrayed by the American Dream that dares to give his present-day’s immigrants a chance at happiness he doesn’t believe he ever got. Both are duped by the promise of streets paved in gold only to see the bloodstains with their own eyes instead. They discover too late how that so-called dream is nothing more than another weapon the wealthy use to keep them both in chains.

[1] Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ansel Elgort as Tony in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Paloma Garcia-Lee as Graziella, Mike Faist as Riff, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Rita Moreno as Valentina in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved. Copyright © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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