Film Review: West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021)
Not only was it not a disaster, in this critic's opinion, it is not only one of Steven Spielberg's finest works (I'd place it in the auteur's top 5 all-time), but the damn thing is better than the original. There, I said it. Steven Spielberg's West Side Story is a better film than the Oscar winning 1961 version by Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins. Don't get me wrong. The 1961 version was great. One of my all-time musicals, despite it's problematic casting of Natalie Wood - which sadly, was the norm for the time. But Spielberg takes the whole thing to another level. One of the best musicals of the century so far. Right up there with the 2002 version of Chicago and Baz Luhrmann's deliriously enjoyable Moulin Rouge. Maybe even better than either of those. Yeah, that's right. I said it and I'm sticking to it.
Spielberg's version is more based on the original Jerome Robbins stage musical than the 1961 film version. The filmmaker rearranges the order of some of the numbers and gives the movie a back story not told before. He brings modern day sensibilities to the movie as well - like changing the tomboy character from the original into a transgender person - but still leaves it set in the 1950's. He also takes the original tale, based on Romeo & Juliet but showing the racism that was rampant in America at the time, and pushes right through the envelope to show the ugliness that is sadly still rampant in America. The sets and production design, the editing, the costumes, the gorgeous cinematography by two time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (in his 19th collaboration with Spielberg) all make for a stunning motion picture experience. An experience I was glad I could see on the big screen of a theatre, after so long stuck inside while a pandemic raged all around us.
And then there is that cast. As I said earlier, the casting of Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican Maria in the original was the norm for the time (John Wayne as Genghis Khan, Mickey Rooney going incredibly offensive yellow-face in Breakfast at Tiffany's) but just didn't work. Plus neither she nor Richard Beymer as Tony even did their own singing. Luckily we had Rita Moreno and George Chakiris to make up for that. And both winning well-deserved Oscars for their efforts. The cast here makes up for it as well. Twenty year old Rachel Zegler, in her film debut, stuns as Maria. In both emotional depth and singing, she is a star in the making - and possibly an Oscar winner to boot. Ansel Elgort, as Tony, is giving off some serious young Brando vibes here. Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, & Mike Faist, as Anita, Bernardo, and Riff respectively, also hand in stand-out performance. DeBose, one time ensemble player in Hamilton and Alyssa Greene in last year's unfairly maligned The Prom, is on her way to stardom too. And she could win an Oscar for playing Anita - the same role that won Rita Moreno her Oscar in 1961.
And speaking of the great Rita Moreno. The EGOT winning legend is Executive Producer on the film and is given the role of Valentina, a reimagined version of Doc from the original movie. Moreno gets to be the film's conscience. She even gets to sing, as the song A Place for Us is given to her character. Is another Oscar in the 90 year old's future? Maybe . Maybe there is a place for her on that Oscar night podium.
And then there is that music. But then how could it not be great. I mean, Leonard Bernstein & Stephen Sondheim. And this cast, doing all their own singing and dancing, bring to an even richer life than before. Spielberg takes the original and makes it his own, much in the same way Stanley Kubrick made Stephen King's The Shining into his own. Spielberg has always been hit or miss with me. His more serious work (Schindler's List, War Horse, Empire of the Sun) can become over-inflated and bloated. His more "popcorn" work (Jaws, Jurassic Park, E.T., War of the Worlds, the Indiana Jones series, well at least the first three) tend to be amazing motion pictures. The pinnacle of the box office boffo realm of moviemaking. Even though it is a tragedy, his version of West Side Story easily fits into the latter category, and is easily one of Spielberg's best works, and easily one the best films of 2021.
That's it gang. See ya 'round the web.