MOVIE REVIEW: Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story
A Triumphant Modern Broadway Adaptation, Brimming With Life in a Significant Improvement to its 1961 Predecessor — ★★★★★
A week ago, in preparation for Steven Spielberg’s brand new adaptation of the beloved and famed Broadway play, West Side Story, I sat down with my significant other to watch the original 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story. While that film is very well-made and technically sound, comparing it to this brand new version is quite hard to really put into words, though I guess the one word I can use to describe the original adaptation now, thanks to some random Twitter jerk who said I was at fault for comparing the two films in my initial Tweet reaction, would simply be; inferior.
West Side Story is a modern adaptation of the classic, Shakespearean romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The feuding families are now substituted in for two warring New York City gangs — the white Jets led by Riff (Mike Faist) and the Latino Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). The hatred between the two escalates to a point where neither can coexist with any form of understanding. But when Riff’s best friend (and former Jet, now out on parole after serving time incarcerated) Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) meet at a dance, no one can do anything to stop their love. Maria and Tony begin meeting in secret, even planning to run away, while simultaneously, the Sharks and Jets plan a rumble, with the winner gaining control of the streets. Maria pleads with Tony to stop it, hoping it can end the violence. With Tony giving in and making a play to stop things, tragedy strikes and before long, there is no going back, for anyone.
Some quick thoughts on the original 1961 film adaptation before going over Spielberg’s version, as I feel it important to talk about it:
- The original film, as stated in the introduction is a very, very well-made film that, from a technical standpoint, stands the test of time…
- It features some great choreographing, memorable visuals and sets, and good songs…
- The problems however, are glaring, with both actors for Tony and Maria, not singing their own songs in the film, rather being dubbed instead…
- None of the characters actually feeling like people, especially anyone on the side of The Jets…
- And most notably, almost none of the Latino characters being played by Latino actors, rather them casting white actors, and doing some truly terrible brownfacing…
So to that specific audience that is still crying out online saying that West Side Story did not need another film adaptation and that the original was a perfect classic, with Spielberg’s not adding or changing anything… please shut up, be a grown adult, and go see the movie or stop bitching and looking for attention. Nobody cares about your whining and you are not only making yourself look ignorant, but laughably stupid as well.
To put it bluntly, in no way or world is the original better than this. It may sound hyperbolic, but quite literally everything is improved in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, now the definitive version of the film, from the music, to the cinematography and visuals, to the performances, to the narrative, to the characters actually finally feeling people. The movie actually feels like it takes place in New York City rather than an abandoned ghost town, because, unlike the 1961 version, this 2021 West Side Story was shot in New York City and New Jersey. The musical numbers like Jets Song, America, and Tonight (Quintet), all feel infinitely better because of this as well, with the characters singing about the city or, specifically to America, singing about life in America while… and I know, it’s crazy, going through America.
Speaking on the improvement facing the actual characters, Chino, Tony, and Maria all feel like they actually have dimensions to their humanity, with Chino being a standout here, as in the 1961 film, the man is a background character for the majority of the film until its final moments, having maybe one line of dialogue, if that, before gunning down Tony in the tragic finale. Here, Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), is a boxer who is also going to school in order to have multiple means of income, while also being set up with Maria, by Bernardo and Anita (Ariana DeBose), as Bernardo and him are bestfriends to the point that they note about being almost like brothers. Chino genuinely seems to like Maria and has a reason for wanting to get revenge on Tony in the end, as not only does he kill his metaphorical brother in the form of Bernardo, but he also gets Maria.
And with speaking about Maria, Zegler’s version of the character goes from being a white woman that does not look Latino in any way, shape, or form, with no personality aside from being pretty, in the 1961 film, to being played by an actual Latino, having a bossy personality, having a job, feeling held down by her brother and Anita, and is left longing for something more in life than to just be set up with someone she already knows without a spark of love. Zegler brings her all into her debut film role as well, being the true standout of the film alongside Mike Faist in the role of Riff, with Zegler belting out her songs throughout the film and being a damn good actress, again despite it being her first movie. Get this girl an Oscar nomination.
Lastly, we have Tony, played by Ansel Elgort. I do not have enough knowledge on his allegations to speak on them, so I won’t. What I will say is that for doing his job in the film, it at least in my eyes, is a substantial improvement over the original, both in his performance, his (actual) singing, and the character's writing, as Tony has a backstory here as well as ties to this film’s version of the Doc character, now Doc’s widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno). Out of the key cast, Elgort is the least inspired, but I personally still saw his performance as being good.
In terms of what else Spielberg brought to the table in this 2021 adaptation, when compared to the 1961 version, the aspect that stood out the most was the changing of the songs. Not in that any musical numbers were removed, but that in this new film, certain songs like Somewhere and Cool, were given to different characters or placed in new parts of the film, with the former being sung by Moreno’s Valentina and the latter being done by Elgort and Faist, compared to the original where it is sung by the Jets after Riff is killed at the Rumble. Numbers like I Feel Pretty and Gee, Officer Krupke are also given new life with new settings and significantly improved staging in this film.
Spielberg is a titan and he sent this musical adaptation flying out of the ballpark with a massive homerun. The characters all feel like human beings despite the fantastical musical numbers at play, the music itself and the staging of them is awe-inspiring, and the performances across the board are ranging anywhere from good to amazing, with Zegler and Faist both being stars in this outing. If you had any doubt as to if we needed a new version of West Side Story, the answer was yes and you should have learned a long time ago to not doubt Steven Fucking Spielberg.
Random Notes: If Disney ever decides to do something with the Roger Rabbit property, give me Mike Faist AKA Riff, as the lead Weasel. He truly has the perfect voice for the role. And also, it’s been said plenty already, but Rachel Zegler is a STAR.
ALSO, if you were one of the people actively throwing a temper tantrum online before the film’s release about there not being subtitles, shame on you. This is not the first time a film or any form of media has opted to not have subtitles for non-English dialogue, and having seen the film, it made perfect sense as to why this decision was made. I am not a Spanish Speaker, and I came out of the theater not feeling like I missed anything aside from a couple jokes that were probably meant for actual Spanish speakers. No important plot points were spoken solely in Spanish, as anytime something crucial was said, it was then spoken in English right after. Grow up.
West Side Story is one of, if not, THE movie of the year and should be seen by as many people as possible. Tell everyone.
West Side Story is now playing in theaters. Go see it. Take your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, friends, family, girlfriends, boyfriends, anyone. Just go see it in theaters.
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