Movie Review: ‘West Side Story’ Is One Of The Best Musicals In Years

Review by James Lindorf

The Academy Awards ceremony, better known as the Oscars, is the oldest worldwide entertainment awards ceremony. It is one of the four prestigious events that make up the EGOT, an acronym for the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards. In the 62 years since the last of the four award shows made its debut, only 16 people have won all four. Rita Moreno took her first step towards her EGOT when she played Anita in the 1961 adaption of the beloved musical “West Side Story.” It is too early to say if this new version will launch a meteoric career like Moreno’s, but if anyone is going to give this young cast a chance, it is director Steven Spielberg. “West Side Story” will be in theaters everywhere on December 10th.

The story remains largely unchanged, and love at first sight blossoms between Tony (Ansel Elgort, Baby Driver) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) when they attend the same high school dance. Manhattan’s Upper West Side may have been a great place to find love in 1957, but it was also home to a fatal feud between rival gangs vying for control of the streets. The Puerto Ricans from San Juan Hill, known as the Sharks, are led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez). Their rivals, the Jets, are Polish, Italian, and Irish “native” New Yorkers. They hate the new minority in town and will follow their leader, Riff (Mike Faist), Tony’s best friend, anywhere. In true Romeo and Juliet style, the burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks until it all comes crashing down in beautifully choreographed song and dance.

Ansel Elgort is already a bit of a star after roles in “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Baby Driver.” His turn as Tony may surprise some who have never heard him sing before, but he is unlikely to receive much of a career bump after this performance. He excels in his moments with Maria and Riff but struggles a bit in the climax going a bit too broad like he is on stage and playing to the nosebleed section. The only other weakness is the fight choreography. Maybe he naturally has no fighting ability, or perhaps he is just unfit for what the stunt team asked of him. He can dance beautifully and agilely climb up fire escapes. Yet when fighting, he seems uncoordinated and lankier than he already is at 6’4”. His performance is slightly better than Ryan Gosling’s in “La La Land,” so if that is where you set your expectations, you should leave happy. So, if it isn’t going to be the biggest name in the movie capturing everyone’s who will audiences be talking about on their way home? There are only three options Ariana DeBose as Anita, Faist as Riff, or Zegler as Maria.

Debose is the best dancer in the film. When she gets going, it is hard to take your eyes off of her, and she deserved the huge production that came with this movie’s rendition of “America.” Instead of being confined to a rooftop, Anita and her girls take on Bernardo and his friends in the streets of New York City. Choreographer Justin Peck incorporated the work of Jerome Robbins but put his spin on it. Viewers like me should be happy to know there appears to be less reliance on Ballet which never looked threatening no matter how hard the actors tried. Debose has excellent presence and ability, but I didn’t connect with her as much emotionally, so it probably won’t be her getting launched into stardom.

Mike Faist is a talented singer and dancer but not head of the class in either respect. However, he shines as Riff because he imbues the character with the perfect amount of resentment, frustration, and joy built around a core of anger issues and arrested development. Riff and the rest think they have been cheated out of a good home life and resent that they are now supposed to work in a dead-end job until they die, only slightly less poor than they currently are. The Jets hate that someone could come to their turf and live better lives than they could, and they try and chase off everyone who comes near, and Riff is always leading the way. Faist may not hit the big time after this, but he is the one I would most want to see in a powerful drama.

Last but certainly not least is Rachel Zegler, who is without a doubt the one most likely to make a huge splash with her performance. In the future, when we think of “West Side Story,” it will be her Maria that comes to mind first, just Like Moreno will always be the iconic Anita. Zegler has excellent chemistry with everyone and especially Elgort. As crazy as it is to have a pseudo-marriage within 24 hours of meeting her innocence and genuineness makes you believe her motivations. She is probably the best singer in the cast with a lovely soprano voice that, along with her petite frame and young features, makes her the polar opposite of the large and fierce Tony. Zegler has a habit of stealing scenes, and the new take on “I Feel Pretty” will be part of her audition tape forever because it is when the audience falls in love with her.

Some will question if the original is a classic, why did this version need to be made. It needed to be made because it is a great story. It has powerful themes of immigration, racial anxiety, abuse of police power, the casual dehumanization of the Other, and love that are still as relevant today as they were 64 years ago when the musical debuted. It needed to be made because the average person isn’t going back to watch a 60-year-old movie. Maybe that is a shame, but the acting styles and film quality aren’t appealing to today’s mass audiences. This will replace the 1961 version for many people, and it is good enough to warrant that. It is a beautiful movie, but it still has its flaws. The motivation of the Jets could use some improvement because it is mostly subtext. On the surface, they come off as whiny brats who know better but choose to do bad things because working to be good sounds hard. They also should have taken the time to include a scene of Chino and Bernardo that would explain the former’s near obsession with the latter. They didn’t miss every opportunity for growth; there were a few changes that Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner made that strengthened the movie.

Anita is full of personality and capable of sweet-talking or fighting her way to getting almost everything he could ask for. She does it in a less stereotypical feisty Latina way this time around. It is refreshing that she feels like she is only representing herself instead of being the spokesperson for millions of Puerto Rican women. Another change is the inclusion of Spanish without subtitles. Spielberg puts the Sharks on an even playing ground when they get to carry out scenes entirely in Spanish or a mix of the two languages. They don’t always know what the gringos are saying, so why should they get to know every detail about the Sharks’ conversations. They do enough with context clues that everyone should get the general message. Still, there are times where you may be left wondering what exactly passed between two or more characters. The most significant change came with the character of Doc because he is here in name only. In his place is his wife Valentina, played by a returning Rita Moreno. She acts as a guide for Tony, trying to point him in the right direction and offering a glimpse of what could be since she also fell in love with a white man like Maria.

Whether you view it as a replacement or companion to the 1961 movie Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is a bright, beautiful blast. With a score of 4.5 out of 5, it is the best live-action musical in more than a decade and should be busy this award season.

Rating: PG-13
Genre: Musical, Romance
Original Language: English and Spanish
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Kevin McCollum
Writer: Tony Kushner
Release Date (Theaters): December 10th, 2021
Runtime: 2h 36m
Distributor: 20th Century Studios

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