This week I righted two long-standing wrongs as a movie fan. The first one is pretty obvious given the title; I was invited on behalf of CGMagazine to see Stephen Spielberg’s 2021 film adaptation of the 1957 musical West Side Story. Having never seen the iconic, modern retelling of the Romeo and Juliet tragedy set among the ethnic gang wars of 1950s New York, I sprung at the chance. The second wrong I then corrected was to immediately watch the 1961 Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins-directed film adaptation the following day, which up until that time I hadn’t seen either.
It was quite humbling, having to hold back tears twice during the same final scene despite being filmed in two different ways. The biggest gut punch to my machismo was worth it to gain the necessary frame of reference to be able to talk about this film. I imagine that most of our readers who have watched West Side Story themselves are more likely to have seen it on a DVD, Blu-ray, or Revue Theatre screen, as opposed to on stage (unless it was a high school production).
In any event, while I’ve had the pleasure of watching both film versions and fell in love with each one immediately for different reasons. As a person of colour, I’m glad and relieved that Spielberg has chosen to provide an alternative to the now 60-year-old musical for today’s audiences. In several ways, it has not aged well, even though the issues it courageously addressed are more relevant in today’s society than ever.
West Side Story 2021 is still a tale about star-crossed teenage lovers Tony and Maria, whose literal and forbidden “love at first sight” meeting on the dance floor at local school function sparks controversy. Their respective connections to warring ethnic gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, set off a racially charged powder keg that is ultimately doomed to consume all in the explosion. It’s still a film that wrestles with topics such as systemic racism in the community and the police, reverse-racism, gender based double-standards, gender identity, violence against women, even mental illness, in lighthearted, serious and at times, in perhaps inappropriately sarcastic ways (yes, the 1961 version also went to all these places!).
“West Side Story is still a vibrant, visual epic with a timelessly infectious orchestral score…”
West Side Story is still a vibrant, visual epic with a timelessly infectious orchestral score by the late Leonard Bernstein, dazzling choreography based on the work of the late Jerome Robbins, and lyrics by the recently departed Stephen Sondheim. Despite Spielberg never having directed a musical before, his nuanced skills and much-professed love for the original 1957 stage production’s soundtrack can be felt in every shot (beautifully framed by cinematographer and long-time Spielberg-collaborator Janusz Kaminski). Perhaps most importantly, West Side Story is still also the tale of a bunch of impulsive, hot-headed kids and young adults barely mature enough to understand their emotions, much less the frailty of their mortality, and in the name of fleeting concepts such as foolish pride, shallow respect and “true love” these kids make some pretty boneheaded decisions.
The art of West Side Story, however, is in how its cast are able to delight and win over the audience to their various causes despite how idiotic, naïve, or nefarious their end goals might be. With all due respect to the 1961 film, this is one of the key areas in which Spielberg’s decades of experience as a legendary dramatic filmmaker make his new adaptation stand a world apart, despite being based on the same 1957 source material.
“The art of West Side Story, however, is in how its cast are able to delight and win over the audience to their various causes despite how idiotic, naïve, or nefarious their end goals might be.”
For one thing, West Side Story 2021 is a grittier film, and wastes no time in setting the tone in the opening sequence, introducing the whistle-calling, finger-snapping Jets amongst a derelict, half-demolished section of New York’s Upper West Side where a large wrecking ball looms over them. Ironically, It’s that sense of impending doom that seems to embolden the confident swagger of the gang and their leader Riff as they emerge from their junkyard headquarters and saunter into the streets of Manhattan to face down the Sharks over territory. The subsequent fighting and big brawls that follow strictly use dance as foreplay before a full-fledged fight, instead of using dance as a proxy for fighting, making the threat of violence more visceral.
Spielberg has also fleshed out several characters who were largely two-dimensional in the 1961 version, making them more grounded and allowing the audience to feel more empathy for them. For example, the relationship between Riff and former Jets leader Tony is more strained and distant, exacerbated by Tony having served a year in jail for nearly killing the leader of a previous rival gang in a fist fight, but the fact that they still consider each other blood brothers speaks volumes. Bernardo, leader of the Latino Sharks, is a popular boxer in the neighbourhood, which explains why he’s regarded as a leader and hero in Manhattan’s Puerto Rican circles and won’t back down to intimidation by the Jets or the police, as well as how he is able to pay rent for his younger sister and himself to live in his girlfriend Anita’s apartment (his 1961 alternate universe version was a much slicker dresser, but didn’t even seem to have a job!).
“For one thing, West Side Story 2021 is a grittier film, and wastes no time in setting the tone in the opening sequence…”
Anybodys, a transgender member of the Jets who wishes to be regarded as “one of the boys” in the 1961 version but keeps his gender identity close to his chest, fully identifies as male in Spielberg’s version. This makes his battle for acceptance within the Jets even harder and his unwavering loyalty to both the Jets and Tony all the more admirable (even if loyalty to the Jets is woefully misguided). Finally, Spielberg’s West Side Story removes all mention of protagonists Maria or Tony’s parents, naturally allowing them to be more impulsive and making their ill-fated love affair’s sudden beginning a bit more believable to a youthful, 21st Century audience.
All that notwithstanding, one of the most brilliant changes that Spielberg has made in remaking West Side Story for a new generation is the casting of Rita Moreno, the actor who famously played the role of Anita in the 1961 film, now playing a part that Spielberg crafted specifically for her, the role of an elderly pharmacy store owner named Valentina. Not only does Valentina serve as Tony’s employer and mother figure in Spielberg’s version, but she is also the widow of Doc, the candy store owner who was Tony’s boss and father figure in the 1961 film (portrayed by Ned Glass).
“One of the most brilliant changes that Spielberg has made in remaking West Side Story for a new generation is the casting of Rita Moreno…”
When one considers that Moreno’s Anita was the mother figure to actor Natalie Wood’s Maria in the 1961 version, the connection is intentionally eerie enough. But when one also understands how Valentina’s subbing in for Doc has disturbingly dramatic implications for one of West Side Story’s final tragic scenes, the levels of meta are enough to make your head spin. But it doesn’t require any meta-knowledge to be moved by Moreno’s touching performance as Valentina, as she tries her best to nurture, protect and instill her hopes for future generations in Tony. Reluctantly supporting him in his pursuit of a bi-racial relationship with Maria, and ultimately bearing witness when the inescapable racial hatred between the Jets and the Sharks inevitably tears all hope asunder.
Spielberg’s choice to have Valentina sing West Side Story’s signature ballad, “Somewhere (There’s A Place for Us)”, rather than the traditional choice of Maria or Tony is made all the more poignant. Referring both to the love Valentina once shared with Doc and the realization that Tony and Maria are unlikely to ever find lasting happiness together.
But here’s the kicker, even more so than it’s 1961 counterpart, West Side Story is the one of the most uplifting and joyous films I’ve watched all year, and that’s just as much thanks to its brilliant, ridiculously talented, young (and young at heart) cast as it is Spielberg guiding directorial hand, Kaminski’s camerawork, or the play’s famous orchestral score. The casting is pitch perfect, and unlike some of the poor decisions made in the 1961 version that were clearly products of their time, all the Latino and, more specifically, Puerto Rican roles are played by actors of those origins, and are proudly represented in their natural skin tones, as opposed to white actors being darkened with makeup.
Actor Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita and identifies as a Black Puerto Rican, is a fierce, athletic firecracker of a dancer who literally runs away with the show during her performance alongside co-star David Alvarez (Bernardo) during the celebratory number “America”, paying direct homage to Moreno’s famous rooftop dance and flowing dress with a bombastic, fiery, street-filling (and screen-filling) block party incarnation that will be forever etched into moviegoers’ memories. The re-appropriation of the jazz number “Cool” from a “lay-low” musical moment for the Jets to an interpretive, backdrop tune during the tense struggle between Tony (Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort) and Riff (Mike Faist) over the possession of a loaded gun is…well…come on, you know that’s cool!
“Rachel Zegler is perfection as Maria,”
Last but not least, Rachel Zegler is perfection as Maria, who, over the course of her three-day love affair with Tony, must quickly grow from an innocent girl discovering true love for the first time to a young woman discovering the true depth and capabilities of hatred, and does so with both poise and tenacity. As a POC, I was a bit disappointed that the only black person I recall seeing that was not of Latino descent happened to be an arms’ dealer that supplies the play’s infamous gun, but just as the 1961 version’s representation of Latinos wasn’t timeless, in another 60 years, the 2021 version might not seem as progressive either. As it stands right now, however, West Side Story 2021’s casting is a clear sign that properly representing and celebrating diversity in Hollywood films is not only possible, but that Hollywood might already be on the right track.
Being no more knowledgeable about West Side Story than Tony and Maria are about love (as of this writing it’s only been three days), I’m probably the last person who should suggest why West Side Story has endured as a musical for 60 years, much less demand that everyone reading this review should run out and see it when you know it’s absolutely going to break your heart, but I’ll attempt to anyway. West Side Story is not just a modern take on a Shakespearean tragedy, or an exploration of racial divides. It’s also a jubilant celebration of life and love, and the hope for the future that such a celebration inspires somehow makes that heartbreak more bearable when neither are fated to triumph. It’s also the best musical I’ve watched in years.
So, to paraphrase Garth Brooks, sure, you could avoid the pain, but then you’d have to miss the dance. Well, if you enjoy the works of Spielberg, if you enjoy great music, if you enjoy dance, if you enjoy stellar, dramatic performances, all on the big screen, then pack along some tissues and get thee to a theatre to see West Side Story! Do not…and I repeat, DO NOT MISS THIS DANCE.