Spoiler-Free Review: “West Side Story” (2021) starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, & Rita Moreno

I’m sure almost ALL of you know the plot, as West Side Story is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) set among gangs on the West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. The 2 gangs are the Jets (white ethnics/NYC-born) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican). The 2 teen “star-crossed lovers”- Tony (former leader of the Jets) and Maria (newly arrived to NYC)- meet at a HS dance and fall in love at first sight. Of course, their relationship will have (deadly) consequences!

There are MANY problematic elements in the 1961 movie, though it is also much-loved by audiences of ALL ages all over the world. First of all, Natalie Wood was NOT a Latina or of Puerto Rican heritage. The Sharks were made-up w/ dark foundation, though people from PR have a wide variety of skin tones. This movie was released after lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He did see the final cut of the film and prefers this version to the original 1961 film (as he said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

I have been challenged by what would be the right musical to take on. And I could never forget my childhood. I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away. I’ve been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself: You must make West Side Story. -Steven Spielberg

The screenwriter is Tony Kushner; I think he did a fine job (aside from a couple of lines which came off as a BIT modern). The choreography (originally by Jerome Robbins) was updated by Justin Peck from the New York City Ballet. Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski (who often collabs w/ Spielberg), went to great lengths to replicate (as much as possible) the lighting/visual style of the1961 film. Look at the way that the camera is swinging around, even from the opening number from the Jets- wow! I liked the (more realistic) sets and (colorful) costumes here. John Williams was brought in as music consultant; he was piano soloist for the 1961 movie. As many critics/viewers have noted, West Side Story has some of the best (and well-known) songs of ALL time! I’m sure a LOT of you were tapping your feet and/or singing along. This film follows the original song order of the stage musical w/ 2 exceptions: “Gee, Officer Krupke” (really liked the choreography) is moved to earlier (as the 1961 movie also did) and “Cool” (NOT impressed by new version) is sung by Tony to Riff (not sung by Riff to the Jets).

Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides- not just territorial divides- more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957. -Spielberg on movie’s relevance today

When casting this version, Spielberg insisted that all Latino characters be portrayed by real Latino actors. Out of the 33 Latino characters onscreen, 20 are of Puerto Rican heritage. There is a good amount of Spanish used in this film; I was glad that I knew the language (though NOT fluent). You don’t need to know Spanish to get what’s up. Almost the entire cast is made up of musical theatre performers; veteran actress Rita Moreno (an EGOT winner; Maria in the 1961 movie) is the most famous. Except for Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler (cast straight out of HS), and Corey Stoll, ALL of the principals are Broadway alums.

Zegler has a V pure/powerful voice; she has received MANY rave reviews for her singing! Elgort (who shot this movie before revelation of SA allegations) is V tall, handsome (in a bland way), and moves gracefully (he studied ballet some). His voice is NOT remarkable in any way and holds little power; this makes “Tonight” NOT as impressive; it also puts a damper on “Maria.” Anita (Ariana DeBose), has the most interesting role; the actress has received a LOT of award season buzz! DeBose is Afro-Latina and worried that she had the “wrong look” for this role; Spielberg told her that she was “perfect.” DeBose and David Alvarez (Bernardo- older bro to Maria) also have good romantic chemistry. Of course, it’s tough to beat the (fiery) chemistry between Moreno and her Bernardo (George Chakiris- who was of Greek heritage). I was V impressed by Riff (Mike Faist); he commands the screen w/ his (amazing) dancing, but it also a fine actor. This Riff is hard-edged/volatile; this is a far cry from the (teddy bear-like) characterization from Russ Tamblyn (1961). You can now watch this movie on HBOMax!

“America” from “West Side Story” (2021) featuring Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez

9 thoughts on “Spoiler-Free Review: “West Side Story” (2021) starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, & Rita Moreno

  1. 1. I love listening to Bernstein. And I think Sondheim is a pretty good lyricist. IMO this musical is best when it’s performed lives with really talented singers and dancers. (Or even with select numbers performed in concert as opposed to entire productions.) Spielberg’s film left a black hole where Elgort was, although it’s true that he can move well.

    2. I don’t love the musical as a story. I think it was racist even by the standards of 1957 and the 1961 film drew that into pretty sharp relief (unnecessarily). So I wasn’t thrilled when I had heard Spielberg would remake the film. I had tentatively decided not to see it for that reason, and my concerns were substantiated by this weird “special” about the musical that ABC broadcast (which suggested they knew there were still problems). Then I heard an NPR segment that made me really not want to see it: https://the1a.org/segments/the-1a-movie-club-sees-west-side-story/ So what got me there in the end was the war in Ukraine.

    3. I agree with a lot of what was said in that interview, but I would go a lot further. I did not buy writing the conflicts of 2022 onto the Sharks / Jets dichotomy. It made the new version much more explicitly political than the 1961 film had been, and not in a sensitive way. If it is to be so political, then I want the Sharks to get more screen time (this was a problem in both previous versions of the story as well, but if we’re going to feel sorry for the Jets like we’re supposed to feel sorry for Trump voters, then I at least want just as sensitive a treatment of the Sharks — who I liked better then and now). I didn’t buy that the Sharks really thought, or would have thought, that their problem was racism / colonialism (‘the gringos ruin everything they touch” or however this film put it). I also did not like the dialogue they gave Moreno in the penultimate scene (“I’ve watched you grow up into racists”) — way too “woke” literal and “knock them over the head with it” in a way that doesn’t fit with the 1950s setting. “Gee Officer Krupke” has outlived its usefulness imo. It was funny when people still thought that the kind of problems recited in the song like a litany might be a cause of social problems (and there was some consensus about that), so that the song appeared to be the kids being sarcastic about that, but now that consensus is fragmented, many of us don’t think that anymore, and what was sarcasm just appears bitter now and (with the dated language) possibly cancellation-worthy. I get that they wanted Moreno in the film and that she didn’t want to just be added, and wanted her own role, but the rewritten role didn’t work for me and I didn’t buy her singing “Somewhere.” If there’s a “message” to this film, it seemed to me much darker than the 1961 version — if there’s no place for Valentina, and no place for Tony and Maria sixty years after this was filmed originally? Uch, I don’t even want to contemplate it. I’m very much in the club of “let’s write new stories for new conditions,” and on a political level, this film very much underlined why I feel that way. 1961 was a time when we thought that these old prejudices were breaking up, so that there were hopeful moments in that film — not so in this one. With a few exceptions it’s just nonstop bleak.

    4. I also didn’t feel like Elgort and Zegler had much chemistry. I agree with you that she was holding back in order not to overwhelm him.

    5. Bright spots: Ariana Debose! iris menas! The choreography (and accompanying cinematography — Spielberg is good at blocking). Riff. The amount of Spanish in the film.

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    • well, he’s certainly excellent. This was my issue with Elgort’s voice. It’s not enough that he can carry a tune or has a pleasant vocal tone when he’s singing casually. That role demands a voice that can stand up to a symphony orchestra. When it became apparent that he wasn’t going to do it, why didn’t they just dub in someone else (as was pretty standard practice back in the 50s and 60s)?

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      • Well, you have some valid pts there! I’ll def listen to the NPR segment soon. Yes, Moreno didn’t want a cameo ONLY; Spielberg told her Kushner had already written the role of Valentina for her to play. I think directors like Spielberg, Ridley Scott, & maybe FEW others are still easily given go-ahead to do any type of movie the want (BUT we are seeing mixed results). I agree w/ the need for NEW stories, not so many reboots, re-imaginings, prequels, & sequels. In this version, filmmakers didn’t want any actor’s voice dubbed (even though that was done w/ MOST of main actors in 1961).

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      • I suppose they think that the audience feels cheated if they aren’t hearing the actor’s own singing voice. (I don’t know — the first time I saw West Side Story and My Fair Lady I didn’t know it was Marnie Nixon singing and I don’t know if it would have bothered me. I mean, by the time I saw those films they were already “historic” on some level. Natalie Wood drowned when I was 12, but she was already over 40.) It may strike me more because I’ve been going to more opera — where enjoyment of the power and skill of the singer is paramount and acting is much less important. Bernstein certainly wrote in that quasi-operatic vein. Whereas I also saw “Cyrano” this week (more Ukraine war escapism) and I found myself thinking that it wasn’t a bad film but that the music did not live up to the story (and more the music than the lyrics) — but that it’s also not clear that Dinklage’s voice would have held up to more.

        I thought “In the Heights” (which also has the theme of a disintegrating neighborhood), while clearly not perfect (and obvs Puerto Rican Americans had a lot of objections to the casting in that film), was just much more interesting, and also still very much in dialogue with the tradition of the classic Hollywood film musical.

        re: certain directors getting to make what they want: I can see that Spielberg’s bombast would go well with certain musicals. I just don’t have the feeling that if he wants to make a “conflict” story, that he gets what the issues might be today (at least, I didn’t see that in this film).

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      • Oh wow- I didn’t know that the new “Cyrano” had singing! I really liked that French ver. from 90s though. I noticed that “In the Heights” is also on HBOMAX- need to see soon (after I get done w/ the Oscar movies watch). I learned that next Spielberg movie will be about his (real-life) parents & their divorce.

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      • I didn’t see the French one; I did watch the NTLive Cyrano with James McAvoy and had mixed feelings. It was well done, but I didn’t enjoy it all that much (I don’t really like hiphop / rap music). It “had a lot more to say” than this new version does, but I found this version sort of irresistible in its artless simplicity. There are a couple of musical numbers that are quite moving. But the music is very MOR. I remember the songs for what they said rather than for the music.

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