West Side Story - I laughed, I sang along, I cried; what more could I have wanted?
5 out of 5
Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner's adaptation of the classic Broadway musical-turned-movie WEST SIDE STORY is, like the original, a Romeo and Juliet-inspired story of star-crossed love and warring street gangs in midtown Manhattan in the late 1950s. The Jets, who are Caucasian and led by Riff (Mike Faist), and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican and led by Bernardo (David Alvarez), confront each other over turf issues. They clash at a dance that Bernardo, an aspiring boxer, and his seamstress girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose), attend with Bernardo's younger sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), who has recently arrived from taking care of their late father in Puerto Rico. At the dance, Maria makes electric eye contact with Riff's co-leader, Tony (Ansel Elgort), who was reluctant to attend due to the rules of his recent probation. Maria and Tony instantly connect, but trouble starts when they're spotted together. Riff challenges Bernardo to a rumble to settle control of the neighborhood streets, but Tony just wants to see Maria again.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and co-starring Rita Moreno (who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the original film adaptation), the film explores themes of social injustice and racism, as well as the power of compassion and empathy. Spielberg turns his hand to musicals and while it's technically very good (and we'd expect no less from him), he does tinker with the story slightly and takes a liberty with one of the songs which makes a poignant moment in the film that had me in floods.
Spielberg's take on this legendary musical is gorgeously shot and brilliantly interpreted, with updates from the 1961 version to be more Latino (if not fully authentically Puerto Rican). The gifted cast is full of musical theater veterans and stars. Rita Moreno plays the widow of the original musical/film's drugstore owner Doc. She runs the pharmacy and has taken Tony under her wing since he was released from prison on probation for nearly killing a rival gang member (both details are part of Kushner's substantial additions to the plot, deepening the characterisations). Kushner also adds dialogue between the supporting characters, beefs up the inclusion of Anybodys (Iris Menas) as transgender instead of "just" a tomboy, and tries to deliver the third-act sexual assault at Doc's in a way that forces the Jets to at least acknowledge their crime. The order of the musical numbers changes slightly for the better as well. The showstopper "America" is now set outside, in the Puerto Rican area of the community; "Somewhere" is sung by Valentina (rather than Maria and Tony); and "I Feel Pretty" takes place at the department store where Maria and her friends work the late shift as cleaners.
DeBose's Anita is particularly scene-stealing, with her strong personality, twirly dresses, and big sisterly attitude toward Maria. Faist's Riff is equally as impressive as both a dancer and singer. Zegler is excellent as Maria, who, while still young and naive, is also ambitious and dreams of a future full of opportunity and love. The only weak link in an otherwise perfectly cast film is Elgort; he's tall and handsome like Richard Beymer, but his voice, while better than expected, isn't nearly on the level of his co-stars. Of all the classic songs, the ones that stand out beyond "America" are the "Tonight" quintet; Anita and Maria's heartbreakingly beautiful duet "A Boy Like That/I Had a Love"; and the opening "Jet Song." Oscar-winning cinematographer and longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski firmly roots viewers in the ruins of the New York City neighborhoods that were destroyed to make the Lincoln Center. Several of the shots are dazzling, and Justin Peck's choreography pays tribute to Jerome Robbins' without copying it move-by-move. Ultimately, Spielberg's version of West Side Story addresses the whitewashed (or, in Moreno's case, brown-faced) wrongs of the 1961 version. It provides a deeper backstory for the main characters and highlights his ensemble's enormous talent -- but Puerto Rican viewers may still wish it had more authentically represented their culture. It has other minor cultural issues but now I'm being too picky.
Go and enjoy an cinematic treat. Sing. Laugh. Cry. It's one of the best films of 2021