Rachel Zegler sings like an angel and Ansel Elgort tries his best to keep up in Steven Spielberg’s lavish remake of the romantic musical West Side Story. Zegler’s Maria and Elgort’s Tony are presented in all versions of West Side Story as the central characters since, after all, they are the star-crossed lovers whose romance propels the plot. But in the 2021 film it’s the two Anitas – 2021’s Anita, Ariana DeBose and 1961’s Anita, Rita Moreno (in a new role) – who deliver show-stopping performances.
Spielberg answers the question of why we could possibly use another West Side Story by delivering a version that corrects major flaws from the 1961 film, including that version’s casting of non-Latino actors as Sharks and its inclusion of actors who can’t sing. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s 2021 version also more openly touches upon serious issues including racism and gang violence, while introducing gentrification of New York neighborhoods as an underlying cause of frustration and rage.
The basic story from the original 1957 Broadway play and ’61 film remains the same in the 2021 adaptation. It’s Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet told with dancing, singing, and rival ethnic street gangs. The Sharks and Jets substitute for the rival Houses of the Capulets and Montagues, and Tony and Maria are the young lovers of different races rather than Houses whose forbidden love causes blood to flow in the streets.
The 2021 musical wastes no time in establishing the rundown nature of the neighborhood, with the opening shot lingering on destroyed buildings and work underway to clear out the old and bring in shiny new buildings, making the area completely unaffordable to those who currently call New York’s Upper West Side home.
Kushner’s screenplay sets up the story by making the racial tension even more clear between the poor white Jets, led by Riff (Mike Faist), and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). By all rights they should band together to fight the man, but they’re unable to look past their prejudices. The dividing line is so clearly drawn, the impact of a gorgeous young Puerto Rican girl falling for a white boy with a criminal history lands harder in this narrative.
Kushner also adds a new twist to Tony, revealing the handsome co-founder of the Jets served time for a violent assault that nearly killed a man. Tony’s turning over a new leaf and swearing off street fights, which makes his involvement in the pivotal rumble between the Jets and the Sharks even more heartbreaking. By attempting to be the peacekeeper, Tony sets in motion the tragic ending.
Another switch that works is the shift from Doc owning the drugstore where Tony’s employed to Doc’s widow, Valentina, in charge of the place. Valentina isn’t just Tony’s sounding board; she’s his liferaft and provides a calming presence in contrast to Riff’s more frantic energy. Rita Moreno’s Valentina is the moral center of the story and when Moreno breaks out in song (I won’t spoil the experience by divulging its title), the result is goosebump-inducing. Literally, I had goosebumps the entire number.
Justin Peck’s choreography echoes the original while also taking on a beat of its own. It’s more rugged, more brutal even…the numbers feel more down-and-dirty when the advancement of the story requires them to. Peck also adds a pureness and light to the more romantic and personal dance numbers.
The stunning cinematography and costumes match the musical numbers in energy and flow, with skirts swirling, the camera whirling, and dancers displaying incredible athletic skills.
Rachel Zegler’s remarkable voice makes up for a lack of emotional depth throughout her performance. As Maria falls deeper in love, Zegler’s ability to display that transformation is somewhat muted. It doesn’t help that the chemistry between Zegler and Ansel Elgort gives off more of a sibling vibe rather than that of a passionate young couple deep in the throes of their first love. Elgort’s acting career isn’t in any danger of being cast aside for a career in music, but he’s passable enough and certainly better than expected.
West Side Story roars to life whenever Ariana DeBose enters a scene. DeBose’s Anita is the center of attention whenever she’s on screen, no matter who she’s sharing time with in front of the camera. DeBose has a mesmerizing, magical presence and a voice to match.
Only time will tell if Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story will take over as the definitive version, but in many important ways it surpasses the energy and passion of the 1961 Oscar-winning film. Updated in subtle ways but maintaining the heart and soul of the original, 2021’s West Side Story is a joyous celebration of musical theatre.
MPAA Rating: G-13 (Some Strong Violence|Brief Smoking|Strong Language|Suggestive Material|Thematic Content)
Release Date: December 10, 2021
Running Time: 2 hours 36 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Studios