Wednesday 23 March 2022

Movie Review: West Side Story (2021)

A remake of a beloved classic, the 2021 version of West Side Story applies updates with a light touch.

In 1957, the west side of New York City is being redeveloped to make way for new theatres and expensive condominiums. On streets cluttered with the rubble of buildings being knocked down, two gangs vie for control. The Jets are led by Riff (Mark Faist) and represent descendants of Polish immigrants. Bernardo (David Alvarez) heads The Sharks, made up of more recently arrived Puerto Ricans. Officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James) and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) try to keep a lid on the violence.

Bernardo lives with his girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) and his sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). The Jets' co-founder Tony (Ansel Elgort) recently served time in prison for nearly killing a man. He is now trying to steer clear of gang life, and working at Doc's drug story, operated by Doc's widow Valentina (Rita Moreno).  

Tony and Maria meet at a school dance and fall in love, infuriating Bernardo, who will not allow his sister to have a romance with a rival gang member. Riff and Bernardo agree to a mass-rumble between the two gangs at midnight. Maria tries to convince Tony to intervene and stop the fight, but emotions are running high on all sides.

Directed by Steven Spielberg (his first musical) and written by Tony Kushner, West Side Story knows better than to mess with a good thing. This faithful remake keeps the foundations, spirit, and themes of the 1961 version intact, and at 156 minutes, clocks in at almost the exact same running time. The tweaks are relatively minor. The sequence and context of a few songs are rearranged, some settings are changed, the choreography is more pointed, and the references to violence are edgier. The actors' ethnicities are a better fit (but still not perfect), and more Spanish dialogue (without subtitles) is allowed to flow. 

Spielberg does find opportunities to apply stylistic signatures, most notably in the stellar visuals. From the mesmerizing opening scene of a landscape being reordered by wrecking balls to a breathtaking entry into a gym teeming with dancers, the cinematography is often sparkling. Tony stands in a pond of rainwater reflecting majestic lights while singing to Maria, and the long shadows of gang combatants merge into each other, a foreboding representation of what is to come.

Switching Doc's role to his widow Valentina is the one major character change, and placing the sprightly Rita Moreno (who also served as Executive Producer) in the role is a masterstroke of cross-generational casting. Ariana DeBose brings energetic confidence to Anita and Rachel Zegler is a revelation as Maria. They are complemented by the confrontational swagger of David Alvarez as Bernardo and Mark Faist as Biff.  Only Ansel Elgort falls well short as Tony, never appearing comfortable whether acting, singing, or dancing.

The familiar musical numbers by Leonard Bernstein (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) remain short and sharp, enhancing the drama without getting in the way. Justin Peck modernizes the choreography but salutes Jerome Robbins' balletic intent. The spine-tingling America registers as the absolute highlight, here relocated to a vibrant streetscape in bright daylight. 

The narrative themes are retained: this is a Romeo and Juliet story, surrounded by commentary about the immigrant experience, youth lost to the ravages of broken homes and absentee parents, and a city embracing a glitzy future by razing the organic past. The West Side Story of 2021 is just as good as the West Side Story of 1961. The new version dazzles, but without delivering a coherent argument for why it was ever needed.

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