From the singing to the dancing, from the cinematography to the production design, director Steven Spielberg's West Side Story shines brightly through the night. Spielberg's WSS reminds us why we fell in love with musical theatre in the first place. One of 2021's best films.
Tonight. It all began tonight. I saw you and the world went away.
Director Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is a marvelous re-adaptation of the classic 50s stage musical. Spielberg’s West Side Story is a more gritty approach that radiates throughout. Rachel Zegler is a born star. Her voice as Maria will hit you like a shot to the heart. Likewise, Ariana DeBose and Mike Faist are phenomenal as Anita and Riff. DeBose and Faist steal every scene they are in. The musical numbers, cinematography, camerawork, and production values will sweep you off your feet. Spielberg’s first musical is simply wonderful. I hope it’s not his last. In my opinion, West Side Story is also top-tier Spielberg (Jaws, Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, and Munich). West Side Story has been a cornerstone for musical theatre for a little over 60 years now. Though, that is not to say that West Side doesn't come with its set of problems. The original 1961 movie adaptation won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, but it also used brownface.
White actors were portrayed as Puerto Ricans, with the exception of actress Rita Moreno (who was the only Latina of Puerto Rican descent). Sadly, brownface was used by white actors to darken their skin for the Puerto Rican roles. Yet, this musical still somehow established greatness in its musical numbers, choreography, and production designs. West Side became a landmark for musical theatre. The 1961 movie, in some respects, felt like a wrestling match between brilliance and offense; by trying to overcome its more problematic themes. To this day, the 60s version is still able to both impress and frustrate at the same time. Yes, something can be both great and deeply flawed. Spielberg's version corrects the wrong by actually casting Latinx actors to play the Sharks (David Avilés, Sebastian Serra, Ricardo A. Zayas, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Ricky Ubeda, Andrei Chagas, Adriel Flete, Jacob Guzman, Kelvin Delgado, Carlos Sánchez Falú, Julius Anthony Rubio, Yurel Echezarreta, and David Guzman). Spielberg was committed to every actor playing a Shark be of Latin descent, and I applaud him for that.
While, Actor David Alvarez (an Afro-Latino of Cuban ancestry) plays the Sharks' leader, Bernardo. Alvarez is marvelous as the hot-headed Sharks' leader. Alvarez showcases Bernardo's pride and pain as a Latino immigrant trying to survive the racial tensions boiling over in New York City. Actress Ariana DeBose (an Afro-Latina of Puerto Rican ancestry) plays Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita. The role of Anita was previously played by "the great" Rita Moreno, who went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Moreno has passed down the torch to DeBose now. DeBose's interpretation of Anita is both fierce and spellbinding. She captures your soul from the first scene she is in, never letting go. DeBose has a good chance at winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress like Moreno did, and I will be rooting for her the whole way. Moreno was given in a new for for this film, as Doc's widow, Valentina. At 90, Moreno's singing of Somewhere was beautifully done. The Jets leader is played by bad boy Riff (a phenomenal Mike Faist). Faist helps elevate the supporting cast, along with Alvarez and DeBose. Riff is a character who is incredibly unlikable, but Faist's brilliant performance makes him hard to resist. Faist is that good.
Newcomer Rachel Zegler (who is of Colombian descent) plays the role of Maria, and she dazzles in every scene. Zegler learned about the audition through social media and won the part after a difficult process. She has already gone on to get a part for Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and she will also be our new Snow White for Disney's live-action adaption. Zegler is a born star, and her voice is pitch-perfect. Alongside Zegler is actor Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony, Maria's first love in this modern re-imaging of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Now, I won't beat around the bush here with Elgort, who was accused of sexual assault back in the summer of 2020. The principle of photography was already done for West Side when this accusation came out, so we cannot magically wipe Elgort away. But this is something that needs to be discussed going forward. Strictly judging Elgort's acting and singing in this film alone, Elgort actually has a decent voice. He was able to keep in tune with Zegler throughout. Though Elgort's vocals are still no match compared to actors Zegler, Alvarez, DeBose, and Faist. Elgort's acting is decent; sometimes he shines while other times he comes off a tad wooden. West Side really excels through its supporting cast. And when this film decides to wow, it wows.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Munich and Lincoln) crafts the script with delicacy and relevance. Kushner also updated some of the song lyrics, song order, and locations from the 50s stage musical and 60s film. The lyrics to this landmark musical were written by the late Stephen Sondheim (Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and Into the Woods) — who knew how to wonderfully craft a show. I would also argue that the 2021 version is not a remake, rather a re-adaptation of the source material. Kushner's screenplay follows more closely to the Broadway script of West Side Story than to the 1961 film. While Spielberg’s approach feels more gritty and realistic, that doesn't take away from the film's beating heart and pride. Spielberg also made specific decisions to keep the accents of Bernardo, Anita, and Maria for authenticity. Here, Spielberg wanted to show that Bernardo, Anita, and Maria are newcomers to New York City and are still learning English, explaining the accent. Spielberg also decided not to use subtitles when Spanish was being spoken throughout this picture. I really enjoyed seeing this on the screen: especially when the actors would switch back and forth between Spanish and English. This reminded me of my younger sister, Tatiana, who is Colombian-American and is also bilingual. Tatiana can easily jump back and forth between Spanish and English so beautifully.
So for me, seeing this translated on the screen in this fashion was very pure and genuine. Spielberg said, "out of respect for the inclusivity of our intentions to hire a totally Latinx cast to play the Sharks' boys and girls. ... If I subtitled the Spanish, I’d simply be doubling down on the English and giving English the power over the Spanish. This was not going to happen in this film, I needed to respect the language enough not to subtitle it." West Side also prevails in its cinematography, camerawork, and production design. Janusz Kamiński's (Schindler's List, War of the Worlds, and War Horse) cinematography is a marvel, while the camerawork swings and swooshes through the streets of New York. The production and costume design might be a little more muted than the colorful 60s version — however — that does not mean that it's not great. These designs are still pretty spectacular and deserve to be praised. Along with the tap-dancing choreography are the breathtaking musical numbers: consisting of Balcony Scene (Tonight), America, Maria, I Feel Pretty, and Gee, Officer Krupke. At 75 years old, Spielberg is still a master of cinema, always in control of his craft. I hope he makes another musical in the near future. West Side Story is a wondrous tale of love, pride, and betrayal. It's a film that I saw in theaters twice because I was so captured by its intimate beauty. Radiant and magical, Spielberg's West Side Story is a musical that needs to be experienced on the big screen.
Here is my personal Ranking of Spielberg's filmography.
West Side Story is also Glynis' No. 1 film for 2021.
West Side Story is rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned) Some Strong Violence | Brief Smoking | Strong Language | Suggestive Material | Thematic Content.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Ansel Elgort, Mike Faist, and "the great" Rita Moreno as Valentina.
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