Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ a Gritty and Powerful Vision

Much has been said about Steven Spielberg’s herculean remake of the classic film musical West Side Story. Some critics have called the new movie better than the 1961 film adaptation of the landmark Broadway show. In fact, some critics have called Spielberg’s epic “perfect.”

While I would not use the word “perfect” to describe it, the 2021 Spielberg adaptation of West Side Story is gritty and powerful. From casting, to script, to pacing, to cinematography – the movie does a lot right. It is a very good film.

Conceived by choreographer Jerome Robbins, West Side Story is a restaging of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. It features music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Instead of Capulets and Montagues, the warring factions are the Jets and the Sharks – a Caucasian gang and a Puerto Rican gang battling on the streets of New York.

Tony is member of the Jets. He falls for Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. Like in Romeo & Juliet, Tony and Maria’s unexpected love affair sparks a war between the two worlds they come from.

The original Broadway book was written by Arthur Laurents. Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for the new Spielberg adaptation. Kushner changes a lot of the key dialogue from the stage musical. It works. His version fills in the blanks of the story.

For instance, in this new version we are given a glimpse into Tony’s violent past. I applaud this wholeheartedly. The most common mistake directors make with West Side Story is they make Tony a wimp. Tony started the Jets. He should be the baddest guy in the gang. Kushner gives Ansel Elgort all the backstory he needs to portray Tony as a true badass.

Starring alongside Elgort is Mike Faist as Riff- Tony’s best friend and leader of the Jets. Faist’s Riff is seething with anger, but with a touch of humor. It is a mesmerizing performance. He has the best singing voice among the male cast and his dancing is magnificent.

As Tony’s love interest, Maria, Rachel Zegler is a joy. At times she is innocent, as the character requires, but she is not all innocent and she expresses some progressive ideas. It is a near flawless performance.

Maria’s brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks. For Spielberg’s adaptation, he cast David Alvarez in the role. Alvarez has fantastic charisma and his dancing is amazing. In fact, the dancing by the entire cast throughout the film is breathtaking.

Ariana DeBose plays Bernardo’s love interest, Anita. DeBose is a powerful triple threat. She sings. She dances. She acts. Give her a chance and Ariana DeBose will blow you away.

Rita Moreno won an Oscar for her performance as Anita in the 1961 classic Jerome Robbins film. In Spielberg’s version of the story, Moreno plays Valentina – the widow of Tony’s boss Doc. I was convinced I would hate the elimination of Doc’s character and couldn’t picture how a Puerto Rican woman could fill the same shoes. I was wrong. Moreno may well be in contention for another Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

One of the keys to West Side Story is that it is a tale about teens. The adults are ancillary characters. I like that in this new version, the adults seem to really care about the teens. They are watching Riff, Bernardo, and their respective gangs go down the wrong path. They want to step in and help, but they are often powerless to do so.

As great as the script and film are, there are holes. Kushner opted to make Bernardo a boxer. There is never really a reason given for this, other than to show off Alvarez’s impressive biceps.

In the stage version and the 1961 film, Tony and Bernardo know each other from their years of gang rivalry. In the Spielberg adaptation, Tony has never met Bernardo before. Yet later in the script, Tony knows all about Bernardo’s boxing career. It’s a sloppy mistake that only stands out because the film is so good otherwise. This is not the only misstep in the Spielberg film, but for the most part the quality of the overall film outshines these blemishes.

One complaint I have is with the character of Anybodys – a tomboy who desperately wants to be in the Jets. The character is almost eliminated from the film. When she does appear, it is without context. Screenwriter Kushner also makes the character transgender – which seems very out of place for the time period of the story.

Similarly, outside of Riff and Bernardo, there are no real strong characters in the gangs. They all kind of blend together. We miss the manic humor of Action and the childlike nature of Baby John that jump off the page in the original Laurents script.

The new adaptation of West Side Story is epic. It is grand. It is gritty. Is it better than the 1961 film? I argue that the two are both excellent, but they are two different animals. It would be very hard to say which is better. They both have a lot to offer.

The 1961 film won 11 Academy Awards. I doubt Spielberg’s version will win as many Oscars, but it will be in the hunt for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress (Moreno).

I wasn’t going to see the new West Side Story in the theatre, but I’m glad I did. There is something magical about seeing this story play out on the big screen.

Peace. Love. Trust.

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