West Side Story 2021 Review -Reimagining A Classic
West Side Story 2021 hits theaters on Friday but did it really need to be remade. In a word -“YES!” West Side Story 2021 is poignant, relevant in today’s times, and yet honors the original stage show in every way necessary. I first saw the original West Side Story when it came out in 1961. I was 7 or 8 at the time. It came out in October and my birthday is in November so I’m not quite sure how old I was at the time. I have no idea why my parents would have taken me to it but I was immediately obsessed with the film. I remember I saw it five more times over the next several months. I insisted on getting the soundtrack album and wore out the grooves on the record. It became a large part of my early musical education as I started piano lessons a short time later. In fact when I was in college studying music my teachers often used bits of West Side Story to illustrate various musical concepts.
Cutting to a few years ago when I first heard that Steven Spielberg was going to re-make one of my all time favorite films my feeling was one of trepidation. Why and how dare he mess with my favorite musical of all time? What could he possibly bring to the table in re-making a film that had won 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture? The answer is Spielberg has not so much re-made West Side Story 2021 as he has re-imagined it and done so quite brilliantly. He has chosen to adhere more closely to the original 1957 Tony award-winning theater version while keeping all the incredible songs intact. The choreography by Justin Peck is new but most definitely spiritually and organically inspired and informed by the original and masterful Jerome Robbins creation. Tony Kushner’s terrific screenplay adds to and fills out the motivations and backstories of the main characters. And wonderfully the actors playing Latinx roles are Latinx and speak unsubtitled Spanish from time to time and if you don’t speak Spanish it doesn’t matter. You will get exactly what they’re saying.
To cut to the bottom line: Spielberg’s West Side Story 2021 is an absolute triumph and one of the best films of 2021.
I won’t bother trying to describe the basic plot as its’ roots in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from the doomed lovers and family warfare updated to the gang rivalry of the Sharks and the Jets is familiar to most of us. What was new in 1957, the addition of the themes of racial intolerance, urban dislocation, immigration, and economic inequality is at least as relevant if not more so today than in the mid 20th century.
The film opens on scenes of destruction as did 1961 original as wrecking balls are poised to knock down the neighborhood which is fought over by the Jets and Sharks in the name of urban renewal and gentrification. We see a billboard with an artist’s rendering of the Lincoln Center which is to be built there. As the Jets saunter down the street to the first inklings of the Jet’s Song breaking into small balletic moves here and there as the energy gathers for the first foray into brilliant dance and song. My mouth came open and my eyes teared up as I watched in sheer amazement as 1961 met 2021. And that amazement didn’t wane for the entire two and a half hour runtime.
This is a beautiful-looking film with excellent performances top to bottom. Firmly set in late 50’s New York City the car-filled streets and people-filled sidewalks are utterly convincing and gorgeous to watch. Seeing the Jets and Sharks dance and sing through the streets dodging people and cars is simply amazing. The song America is brought down from the rooftop to the streets as Anita, played by the wonderful Ariana DuBose, and the rest of the Shark girls and Sharks dance and sing through the streets joined by a diverse cast of onlookers. It’s a thrilling scene. One of my favorite songs, Cool, has been resequenced to match the theater version more directly. In the original film, it appears after the rumble in a parking garage and is sung by Ice, the Jet second in command as a way to cool down the tensions in the aftermath of the tragic fight. It’s a remarkable dance performance filled with sparks and tension and bravura performances. In the new film it becomes a beautiful scene well before the rumble as Tony takes the lead singing to his life long brother from another mother Riff in hopes of stopping the rumble and easing tensions. Sadly Tony fails but the vocals and choreography are fabulous,
The performances throughout are excellent. Every actor is a triple threat: an accomplished actor, singer and dancer. All of the actors do all of their singing and dancing and some of the vocals are live on camera as opposed to playback which is somewhat remarkable in today’s film productions. Many have extensive Broadway experience such as Shark leader Bernado played by Tony winner for Billy Elliot, David Alvarez. Mike Faist who plays Riff appeared in Newsies and Arina DuBose was in the original production of Hamilton. Ansel Elgort, Tony, has appeared in many films including the critically acclaimed Baby Driver, and has a fine tenor voice and acting chops to match. His sense of hope for the song Somethings Coming and joy at finding his love at the dance and then the song Maria are beautiful to watch. His expression of horror and utter despair as his love is destroyed is haunting and soul-crushing.
When newcomer, Rachel Zegler as Maria begins to sing for the first time in her duet with Tony, the song Tonight, I was floored. She has a gorgeous and expressive soprano voice and was simply amazing throughout. Rita Moreno, the academy winner for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in the original film appears in a new role specially written for this film. She is Valentina, the proprietor of the drug store that was originally Doc’s. She basically is Doc but in an expanded role serving as a mother figure and confidant to Tony and something of a trusted authority figure to the other Jets and the neighborhood. Her performance is excellent and she gets a wonderful surprise added to her performance which I won’t spoil.
This new version of West Side Story 2021 is considerably rougher and grittier than the original. The fights are beautifully choreographed but are no longer fight ballets. It’s more of the real deal with more realistic appearing consequences. The emotions are even more heightened and there is a bit of language throughout so this film may not be appropriate for some young viewers. That being said this a remarkable film that deserves to be seen on the largest screen you can find and come Oscar time may be very well represented. Steven Spielberg has made, after a long and storied directing career, his first musical and it’s one for the ages. Thank you, Mr. Spielberg, for West Side Story 2021-we needed this. Do you think West Side Story 2021 needed an update?