DaVette “Sees” Movies | WEST SIDE STORY REVIEW – It’s Art, for Steven’s Sake
West Side Story opens tomorrow night, and all of us who love either the stage version, the original film version, or both, can relax: it is a very good film. This is one of those movies that is referred to as “one of the most anticipated films of the year”, for many reasons, the main one being that the is director Steven Spielberg, leaving little doubt that the film could be anything other than exceptional.
Spielberg fell in love with the music as a kid and he has made no secret of his respect for the original stage play and film, as well as his long-time desire to direct a new version for the screen. If that, plus the fact that he’s Steven Spielberg, doesn’t convince you that West Side Story was safe in his hands, he was also a close friend of Robert Wise, the director, along with Jerome Robbins, of the 1961 version, and Spielberg has stated that the two the often discussed the film. When his desire to reimagine the masterpiece looked to become a reality, his approach was to tread lightly and with reverence. The result is fantastic. Are there things about it that will have OWSS61 (Original West Side Story 1961) fans going “But whyyyyyyy???” Sure. But it is still a beautiful, enjoyable, and engaging film.
You don’t have to be a film or musical theater buff to know the plot of West Side Story. Tale as old as time, indeed, West Side Story is a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in the streets of New York circa late 1950s. Instead of the Montagues and the Capulets, the warring families were gangs made up of teenagers: the Jets, who were poor and working-class white descendants of European immigrants, and the Sharks, newly arrived immigrants from Puerto Rico. As the rival gangs prepare to battle it out over turf to call their own, two young people stumble upon each other. Tony and Maria, each from opposite sides of the battle, fall hopelessly into a doomed love. The tragedy unfolds in much the same as the Bard’s, the only real difference being that one young life is spared.
The stage version of West Side Story was critically acclaimed, but it was the film, coming along a few years later, that rocked the world. It was unlike any film musical that had come before it, addressing societal issues like racism and nationalism. Conceived and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, who co-directed with Wise, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, the intense and breathtaking masterpiece won ten Academy awards and the hearts and minds of the movie-going public.
But nothing is perfect, so despite his understandable admiration for the 1961 version, Spielberg chose, in his version of the story, to correct some missteps, particularly in casting, that tainted the otherwise perfect original. His promise that this version would right the wrongs of the original was music to the ears of members of the Hispanic community. The original notoriously darkened the skin of white actors and dancers portraying Puerto Rican characters in the film, including Natalie Wood, who played Maria. In this version, twenty cast members, including eight members of the Sharks, are Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent.
Spielberg also wanted young actors, not those in their 30s, to play the teenaged characters to lend even more authenticity to the production, so a wide talent search ensued. One result was the casting of Rachel Zegler, a Latina of Colombian descent, as Maria, who does of a superb job as the love-struck teen. She seems comfortable portraying a Maria that screenwriter Tony Kushner has written as slightly more worldly and self-assured than the one who inhabited Authur Laurents’ book for the original musical. In a theme that runs through the film, the attempt to have the characters behave more realistically seems at odds with their words and attitudes, making for a few awkward moments. However, Zegler makes it work and radiates a combination of earnestness and naiveté which feels genuine.
The other thing that is genuine is her singing voice. Zegler has a clear and sweet yet powerful soprano voice that handles all of Maria’s songs with ease. One of the complaints about the original film was that the leads were dubbed by other singers. This wasn’t unusual at the time, and, unless you know, it isn’t noticeable due to the skill of singers like the fabulous and uncredited Marni Nixon. Nixon sang all of Wood’s and one of Rita Moreno’s songs that were out of her range (weirdly it was “A Boy Like That”, which means Nixon sang a duet with herself). It has been said that Natalie Wood was unaware that they dubbed her songs until the night of the premier. The only time her singing voice was heard was in the end scene when she sings to Tony. Thankfully that ridiculous practice eventually died out.
The other inspired bit of casting is that of the beloved Rita Moreno, the 1961 West Side Story’s Anita, a role for which she won an Oscar. Moreno’s role in this version was written especially for her and she handles it like the pro she is. As Valentina, the owner of Doc’s grocery store (and local hangout), Moreno embodies the voice of experience, and, in spite of everything, hope. And though I don’t necessarily agree with giving her one of the musical’s signature songs, I can’t deny that she breaks your heart, it is such a lovely rendition. She is radiant and for me, she is one of the most enjoyable parts of the film.
Another standout in the cast is Mike Faist as Riff. His Riff is raw and real and makes clear that all Riff has in the world is the bit of turf he is fighting for. Faist’s performance lays out in no uncertain terms that Riff was always going to die young. Though he handles the dancing and singing beautifully, it is the fury in Riff that he radiates that you find yourself thinking about long after the film is over. His is also a Riff that really doesn’t seem to need Tony. The close friendship between the two is written into the dialogue, but there is a lack of sincerity coming off the screen in their declarations of brotherly love. This baffling choice on Spielberg’s part nevertheless makes him more clearly the Jets leader, tougher and more independent, and it works extremely well.
Ariana DeBose had quite the tough job to make us forget Moreno’s Anita, and thank goodness she doesn’t try. Instead, she takes Kushner’s witty and ambitious Anita and makes her unforgettable in turn. Her blazing eyes and mega-watt smile make her the person you are watching on the screen in every scene she is in. Though she handles the comedy and the tragedy equally as well as she does the singing and dancing, which is to say skillfully, there were a couple of times where a more nuanced and less animated approach might have worked better. Still, she is a delight to watch and perfect for the role.
Another casting decision and change in the script that is to be applauded is that of nonbinary actor Iris Menas as the hanger-on and Jet wannabe, Anybodys. In the original stage play and film, Anybodys is described as a tomboy, but one who is cis-het female as written in the book. In this version, Anybodys is transgender and seeks acceptance and validation from the gang as a boy. The choice to be inclusive with a period piece is laudable, but it is the arresting and splendid performance by the actor that is worth noting.
It is unfortunate that Ansel Elgort’s Tony was not as strong as one might have expected, though his singing voice was charming. He is a good actor, and he isn’t terrible in the role. In fact, there are some fine moments in his scenes with the Jets and Riff in particular, and also in the penultimate scene in Doc’s basement when he finds out what Chino has done. Unfortunately, the Tony that is full of dreams, and later head over heels in love, never comes off as authentic. Still, I think part of the fault is with Kushner giving Tony more of a backstory that propels him to seek a better path instead of Tony just being a good guy looking to grow up and move beyond his circumstances.
Of course, the music is, what else, perfection, so no need to say anything other than bravo to all involved for bringing to life once more the incredible accomplishment of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, especially conductor Gustavo Dudamel. The choreography by Tony winner Justin Peck, though inspired by Robbins’, was original, fresh, and glorious and never once felt staged.
All the design aspects of the film are scenic, reminding me of all the world of Renaissance paintings, with the muted pallet making all of the action somehow more present. I did think that occasionally things seemed to blend visually in a way that made it difficult to focus on a particular bit of action.
Paul Tazewell’s costuming was outstanding, but I must give a chef’s kiss for DeBose’s striking outfits in particular which redefined “drop-dead gorgeous.” I wanted every single one.
As I said, Spielberg’s West Side Story is very good. There is no doubt that most viewers will enjoy it immensely. However, though I enjoyed it, even crying at the appropriate moments, I left the theater feeling curiously unmoved. It wasn’t because I prefer the original, which I admit I do. It was because I felt let down that Spielberg chose to do an homage to, as opposed to a reimagining of, the original. His reverence for the original play and film kept us from seeing what might have been something not only gorgeous, which this is, but also something groundbreaking which it absolutely is not.
Yet, isn’t it a director with his experience, talent, and resources exactly the type of person we would love to take on this type of project? Maybe not at this point. Maybe that is no longer Spielberg’s job. It was a younger and more adventurous filmmaker who gifted a new generation of audiences with his version of the classic adventure film. The same young director who imagined and presented us with benevolent, not malevolent, pilots of UFOs and turned the phrase “extraterrestrial” into a household word in a good way.
Instead, better to look to the next crop of young directors, one or two of whom may surprise and delight like Spielberg in his prime: both respecting and challenging the classics of film and taking our collective breath away with the resulting beautiful creation. Those are the films that reset the bar for the artform and stay with us for generations. Now that is a film I can’t wait to see.
Spielberg’s West Side Story isn’t that, but it is a great film worthy of the praise it will undoubtedly receive from both critics and audiences. I kind of envy those people who never saw the original film. They may enjoy it more than people like myself, who know every note and every line of dialogue. I’d also safely call this a family movie. It isn’t often that you get to go to a movie with your parents and your kids that isn’t something animated. There is some violence, but much less that you see on a typical weeknight on television during family hour.
So go (properly masked and vaxxed, of course) and spend a few hours in a darkened theater and lose yourself in the exquisite visuals, enthralling music, and exceptional performances.
Official Website: West Side Story | Steven Spielberg, Director | December 10, 2021 | Amblin
WEST SIDE STORY opens in theaters everywhere December 10th.
Directed by Academy Award® winner Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award® winner Tony Kushner, WEST SIDE STORY tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City. This reimagining of the beloved musical stars Ansel Elgort (Tony); Rachel Zegler (María); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); Ana Isabelle (Rosalía); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); and Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works). Moreno – one of only three artists to be honored with Academy®, Emmy®, GRAMMY®, Tony® and Peabody Awards – also serves as one of the film’s executive producers. Bringing together the best of both Broadway and Hollywood, the film’s creative team includes Kushner, who also served as an executive producer; Tony Award® winner Justin Peck, who choreographed the musical numbers in the film; renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and GRAMMY Award® winner Gustavo Dudamel, who helmed the recording of the iconic score; Academy Award®-nominated composer and conductor David Newman (ANASTASIA), who arranged the score, Tony Award®-winning composer Jeanine Tesori (FUN HOME, THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE), who supervised the cast on vocals; and Grammy®-nominated music supervisor Matt Sullivan (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, CHICAGO), who serves as executive music producer for the film. The film is produced by Spielberg, Academy Award®-nominated producer Kristie Macosko Krieger and Tony Award®-winning producer Kevin McCollum. WEST SIDE STORY has been adapted for the screen from the original 1957 Broadway show, with book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and concept, direction and choreography by Jerome Robbins. From 20th Century Studios, The Walt Disney Company will release WEST SIDE STORY in U.S. theaters on December 10, 2021.