WEST SIDE STORY

Published On December 10, 2021 | By Matt Neufeld | FILM REVIEWS

WEST SIDE STORY
Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andres Rivera, Iris Menas
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Tony Kushner
Based on “West Side Story”
Music by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Originally conceived, choreographed and directed by Jerome Robbins
Originally produced by Harold Prince
Based on “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare
Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger and Kevin McCollum
Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski
Edited by Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar
Choreographed by Justin Peck
Music arranged and adapted by David Newman
Music consultant, John Williams
Vocal coach, Jeanine Tesori
The 1961 film version:
Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Screenplay by Ernest Lehman
Produced by Robert Wise
Starring Natalie Wood (songs sung by Marni Nixon), Richard Beymer
(songs sung by Jimmy Bryant), Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Ned Glass, William Bramley

It is quite gratifying, pleasing–and a relief–to report that Steven Spielberg’s new version of “West Side Story” is, simply, excellent. This new film musical classic beautifully and wonderfully stands on its own, but the film also amazingly, and smartly, honors, pays homage to, respects and celebrates all of the genius of the original stage play and Robert Wise’s and Jerome Robbin’s original 1961 film version.

Do yourself a huge favor this holiday season and head on out to a real movie theater and see, and thoroughly enjoy, this masterful new film.

Spielberg, his incredibly talented, charismatic, energetic and photogenic cast of youthful stars-waiting-in-the-wings (although, likely not for long after this film is released!), and his entire cast and crew obviously brought their full respective array of incredible talents to the set every second, every moment, and that talent, vibrancy, enthusiasm and chemistry bring this movie to life literally from start to the end credits. Spielberg’s swirling, whirling, always-in-motion, fluid and innovative direction is inspired; Tony Kushner’s politically, socially and culturally wise and insightful screenplay is always sharp, vivid, cutting, urban and edgy, aptly befitting the story and setting; Justin Peck’s amazing choreography honors and is inspired by Jerome Robbin’ original dancing, all the while wholly honoring and respecting the genius of Robbins; Janusz Kaminski’ cinematography is colorful, bright when needed, dark when needed, appropriately atmospheric in every scene and shot; composer David Newman’s music adaption of course keeps the majesty and brilliance, the eclectic melodies, harmonies and rhythms of the maestro and master Leonard Bernstein; and of course, anchoring everything is Stephen Sondheim’s masterful, insightful, perceptive, brooding, romantic, funny, dramatic and tragic lyrics. Everyone who worked on this film were quite obviously inspired, energized, enthused and working at the very top of their creative talents, and all of this collective work shows up on the screen in dazzling big-screen good ol’ fashioned musical theater–and fim musical–magical entertainment.

What a relief to say all of this happily. Because ever since the word came out that Spielberg and his cast and crew were making this new version of such a revered, honored and respected stage musical and original film, the first reaction for most folks was, simply, “Why?”

Why on earth produce another film version of such a classic original film? What possible need or want existed to tempt the fate of the muses, and the film musical gods, to make another film version of “West Side Story” when the 1961 film is universally and generally regarded, honored and respected as a major, important and groundbreaking cultural, social and entertainment touchstone?

Perhaps the answer lies in Spielberg’s finished product, and how he and his cast and crew remained smart, insightful and perceptive enough to, as noted earlier, maintain a very high level of honor, gratitude, homage and respect to the original stage musical and the original 1961 film and, still, not just produce a cheap, simply by-the-book, cookie-cutter rehash, re-invention or experimental version that would dare to dishonor, disrespect or demean those original versions.

It’s a difficult high-wire act (pardon the cliche, but it’s apt) to accomplish such a feat when tempting artistic fates by dealing with, working on, remaking, and staging and filming and photographing, singing, dancing and choreographing such honored classics. But, again, somehow, through sheer smarts, respect, talent, inspired new creativity, the utilization of many of the most talented performers, entertainers and craftsmen in theater and film, and the aforementioned constant, steady and confident high levels of sheer talent at all levels, well, Spielberg accomplished what, really, some thought he couldn’t possibly accomplish–and he pulled it off, producing a dazzling, entertaining, smart film that, again, stands on its own but never, ever dishonors the original film or the original stage version.

Perhaps this positive, already-acclaimed and newly-respected new film version’s success and high level of quality is the answer to the why. Perhaps the answer is also this, as a reviewer for The Seattle Times noted: Watching the new film version is liked getting re-acquainted with an old friend who now looks quite different.

Nevertheless, the new movie works.

But–are there a few nitpickings, quibbles and still-remaining questions? There are, and we’ll get to those a bit later.

But first, much of the pure, unfiltered, organic and enlightening enjoyment of Spielberg’s film is the sheer youthful talent, energy, creativity, charisma and enthusiasm of his cast of young triple-threat actor-singer-dancers. The cast just shines, razzles and dazzles, at every level. They can act, they can sing, they can dance, and, man, Daddio, can they light up the screen with equal parts of the required sensuality, angst, rage, confusion, bewilderment, tragedy, violence and emotion required to be presented by groups of fighting, arguing and flirting mid-1950s teens in New York City’s conflicted, changing and challenging urban west side of that particular moment and time.

Ansel Elgort as the tragic Tony perfectly captures his troubled character’s inner conflicts of trying to balance his past crimes with his current attempts to work toward a better life, all while trying to break from his gang friends and just happening to fall in love with the sister of his main rival gang’s leader; a breathtakingly beautiful and photogenic Rachel Zegler is all pure teen conflicting emotions as the equally-tragic but good-hearted Maria; Ariana DeBose appropriately smolders as the fiery Anita; an appropriately tense, violent and volatile Bernando, Maria’s dangerous boxer and gang leader brother, is well-played by David Alvarez; and Mike Faist is excellent as Tony’s longtime friend and equally volatile gang leader Riff. These five actor-singer-dancers are simply a joy to watch, and you can see that, quite simply, they are having the theatrical, thespian and cinematic times of their young lives.

And, lo and behold, there amid the proceedings–and just as dazzling–is a most welcome presence who also lights up the screen, while performing classicly at the other end of the life-chronology metric, the great Rita Moreno– who, of course, played Anita sixty years ago in the original 1961 film. And, of course, she promptly won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for that performance. To see Moreno acting in this film, lighting up the screen sixty years later, holding her own amid this array of youthful talent, and even singing a beautiful song by herself—well, you can’t help but be happy, be grateful, feel bittersweet, feel nostalgic and even shed an emotional tear or two or three. Moreno, who turns 90 on Dec. 11, 2021–one day after this film’s official release date–is still a wonder, a treasure, a talented performer, all these years later. It’s wonderful to see her in this film. She plays a character named Valentina, the widow of the sorely-missed Doc, the wise and insightful owner of the neighborhood drug store and candy store who acts as a type of savior, peacekeeper and father figure to those rival gangs.

Moreno has some touching scenes with Tony, who she tries to steer away from his gang friends and darker impulses. She is also an executive producer of this 2021 film version–which is yet another smart connection and level of respect to the original film.

It’s impossible to watch this new film version of “West Side Story” without another tear or two or three in your eye, and with an overwhelming bittersweet and even just plain sad feeling, without thinking about the late, great theater master Stephen Sondheim, who, of course, wrote the brilliant lyrics for “West Side Story.” Sondheim, alas, died on Nov. 26, 2021, just two weeks before the new film version’s wide release and just thee days before the film’s premiere screening in Sondheim’s beloved New York City. It’s so sad to think of a world without Stephen Sondheim in it, as many people have said during the past two weeks, and it’s sad that Sondheim won’t be around to enjoy this new film version’s theatrical release–60 years after the release of the original 1961 film and 64 years after the initial opening night of the original stage musical in 1957. However, in a very real and yet still magical way, Sondheim is very much here with us in all of his lyrical genius, with this new film, and with all of the other thousands of ever-continuing productions of the play. We’ll always have Sondheim by our side.

Variety reported that during the pre-production phases for the new film, Sondheim worked closely with screenwriter Tony Kushner, going through Kushner’s screenplay, word by word, line by line, offering notes and suggestions and insight and continuing to offer his genius. And it’s gratifying to note that Variety reported that Kushner said that Sondheim liked the new film version. Sondheim also advised Spielberg and attended recording sessions and filming days. So although it’s so sad that Sondheim died so close to the film’s release, it’s also gratifying to know that Sondheim was so heavily involved in the making of the film–and that he liked the new film.

Would it be rude to mention some nitpickings, quibbles and slight criticisms of the new film at this point? Not really, because even the great Sondheim often criticized his own work– including his lyrical work in “West Side Story,” if you can believe that! So, yes, there’s a few criticisms for the new film.

Kushner and Spielberg have fiddled around with the placement of some songs and scene locations, moving some around from previously-recognizable places in the original stage version and in the 1961 film version. Songs that were previously here are now there, and scenes that were previously there are now here. Diehard and longtime fans of the musical–and possibly even some casual fans–will notice the differences. It’s a little frustrating, but the movements of songs and scenes don’t hurt the movie in general. But, really–the movie would have still been just as good if these songs and scenes were left in their original places.

Then there’s the equally-irritating issue of characters speaking Spanish at certain times–without any subtitles. This is baffling–and a bit weird. What’s the sense of characters speaking Spanish if most of us can’t understand them? Having the characters speak some Spanish at times lends cultural authenticity, but it doesn’t make much sense if most people don’t know what they’re saying. Film, acting and theater are about communication on many levels, and if words aren’t communicated, well, that’s a failure to communicate.

Then there’s the character of Anybodys–a cute, inquisitive and always-present tomboy girl who follows the gangs–the Jets and Sharks, in case anyone’s forgotten–around their neighborhoods, watching from the sidelines and often acting like a type of one-girl spy, observer and watcher from the shadows and sidelines. As originally written, the character was simply a tomboy girl. But Anybodys’ identity is oddly, confusingly blurred and marred in the new film version, a slightly klunky move that’s more distracting than helpful. Anybodys’ presence should be that of a cute, inquisitive tomboy girl, and that’s it. There really wasn’t an overpowering need to change the character’s dynamics for the new film.

And where on earth is Doc in this new film?! While Moreno is great, and it’s great to see her in the movie, the film does suffer from not including Doc. Actually, removing Doc from the story doesn’t make much sense, either– he’s needed as what he was intended to be– a wise, steady, smart and comforting father figure for the story, the gangs and the neighborhood. The movie should have had Doc and Valentina at the corner store–that would have been a great addition to the story and film. There is really no need not to have Doc in the new film.

However, these nIts of course don’t take anything away in general terms from the overall high quality of the film.

The ghosts of Bernstein, Sondheim, Laurents, Robbins and Prince hover over and around any version of “West Side Story,” just as the creators of any play, show, song or film do with any production. But it’s a high compliment, and a comforting compliment, to think that these geniuses of the theater would like, praise and enjoy Spielberg’s new film version. That is indeed high praise.

And what about Robert Wise, the co-director, with Robbins, and producer of the first film; and Ernest Lehman, who wrote the screenplay for the 1961 film? Lehman would likely like the new film.

As for the great, esteemed Robert Wise, well, in the early 1980s, the Student Union Film Committee at the University of Maryland at College Park hosted Wise for an educational visit to campus by the director and producer. As part of a few days of activities, the Film Committee hosted a screening at the campus’ Hoff Theater of Wise’s 1961 masterpiece film version of “West Side Story.” I was on the Film Committee and was fortunate to have spent some quality time with Wise during his visit.

I was seated directly behind Wise at the screening. A few minutes before the film started, I leaned forward to speak to Wise. He turned and smiled–he was incredibly nice, kind, caring and gracious during his entire visit. Wise loved teaching, educating and mentoring students about film. But I was worried that he’d possibly be bored sitting through his masterpiece for the thousandth time, even as masterful as the film has always been.

“Excuse me, Mr. Wise,” I said, “But I hope you don’t mind that we’re showing the film; I’m sure you’ve seen it a thousand times. But it’s such a great film, we wanted to show it to the students. I hope you don’t mind watching it again.”

Wise let out a little laugh, as my fellow Film Committee members, seated nearby, looked at me like I was nuts. But I was just trying to be nice. But Wise, as smart as he was, completely understood.

“Actually, Matt,” the great director said reassuringly, “I don’t mind at all, and I’m looking forward to it! I haven’t watched the movie in a while!”

I settled back into my seat. The lights dimmed, and occasionally, as the full theater of wide-eyed filmgoers got lost in Wise’s masterpiece, I’d glance over at the great director there in the dark. He had a smile on his face during the entire film: like everyone else, he was completely, thoroughly enjoying himself. And he told us just that later, after the credits rolled and the entire theater erupted in gracious applause.

I’d like to think that if Robert Wise was watching Steven Spielberg’s new film version of “West Side Story,” in a darkened theater, he’d also be smiling and enjoying himself, and I do indeed think that Robert Wise would like Steven Spielberg’s film. And that’s just about the highest compliment that I can give to this new version of this immortal classic and masterpiece of stage and film.

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