West Side Story (2021)

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Ziegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Mike Faist, Brian D’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, and Josh Andres Rivera (plus a ton of other Jets and Sharks).

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Where I Watched It: Disney Plus (though it is also currently available as of this writing on HBO MAX as well)

English Audio Description Available?: Yes

The Plot: A remake and reimagining of the classic Leonard Bernstein musical that hit screens sixty years ago. The Romeo and Juliet inspired plot follows to rival gangs, the Jets (the poor white kids) and the Sharks (the Latino immigrants) in a turf war, and how two individuals on each side, Tony (Elgort) and Maria (Ziegler) get caught up and fall in love, causing even more turmoil… and death.

What Works: As a music theatre nerd, I have to relish the fact that last year we got five major non animated movie musical adaptations (In The Heights, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Dear Evan Hansen, Tick Tick Boom, and West Side Story), and most of them were pretty great, and the ones that weren’t, still had plenty to celebrate. So out of those five, why did West Side Story end up being the only Best Picture nominee?

Well, it shouldn’t be the only one, first of all. But, the answer lies deep in the initial question everyone had when it was first announced Spielberg would be adapting this story. “Why?” There is that unwritten if it ain’t broke rule that applies even to the oldest of Hollywood classics, which the original West Side Story absolutely is. You don’t mess with classics. I remember an ill fated attempt to update Casablanca at one point, and there’s also Gus Van Sant’s underwhelming and underperforming Psycho shot-for-shot remake that scare others away. You have to be able to answer that question in grand form, and most of the remakes we’ve gotten are very obviously either previous adaptations (like all those Little Women movies), or the answer is “because we have better visual effects now”, like the multiple iterations of Godzilla and King Kong, or any of the Universal monsters.

But a movie musical? The music is still the same. So how do you breathe a different light? Well, Spielberg found a way, with an incredibly talented cast, none of whom felt like they were pretending to be Latino (a step up from Natalie Wood in the original). But Spielberg went a step further an enlisted Tony Kushner in restructuring the book of the musical, changing scenes around, and creating entirely new characters. Now, we have Rita Moreno as Valentina, in a return to the same film that made her famous, just in a different role. Her part brings so much life and richness to the story, and her performance is magic. I’ll get to Ariana in a minute, but I’m so surprised Moreno wasn’t more in focus this season. They put all their chips behind Ariana DeBose, but Rita Moreno and her heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of Somewhere is a highlight, if not the highlight of the film. What an exceptional choice, and her voice is still beautiful.

In fact, the voices in the movie are all quite perfectly cast. Elgort has a much better voice than I initially assumed, proving me very wrong there. Ziegler has the kind of perfect lilting soprano for Maria that answers the question of how she was plucked from obscurity, and of course DeBose is as terrific as ever as the fiery Anita. A Boy Like That was another big highlight for me.

The way the voices are captured transition perfectly, like they should, from talking to singing. It never sounds like they went into a recording studio. it’s not quite that obvious live recording we got with Les Miserables, but it’s damn close. The sound team here should be praised, and thank God we didn’t go hard on auto tune. This cast can sing, and they just let them.

Of course, I could go on all day about these actors. Even the smaller Jets and Sharks were perfect. James and Stoll were perfect. Ariana DeBose is getting all the love for a tremendous performance full of life and pain. She really digs into Anita in the best of ways, and her passion in the role carries her Anita through some tragic scenes.

What Rachel Ziegler lacks by the story not giving Maria much to do, she makes up for with a tremendous voice, and making the most out of the few moments of range she’s allowed to have. If we’re being honest, Maria and Tony aren’t the meatiest parts, with Maria being left to always be some kind of old fashioned damsel in distress. It’s something that DeBose refuses her Anita to be, but Maria does get stuck there.

Not enough people are talking about Mike Faist and David Alvarez, two supporting performances that just set the screen on fire. I hope to see more from both in the future, because they deserve a lot more love than they’ve gotten.

Admittedly, before this, West Side Story was not one of my favorite musicals. It’s actually one of my least favorite. Spielberg somehow found a way to capture what I always believed worked, and build a stronger, better, and more rich story with an exceptional cast that made me now love this musical. Songs I’ve previously never liked, I finally understood, like Cool. It just felt so right this time around.

I wish i could talk about what is probably exceptional costume design, cinematography, production design, and all that. But every part of this film is fire, so I assume the rest I’m not directly able to enjoy is as well. If this doesn’t end up in my top 10, I’d be shocked. Is it my favorite from last year? It just might be.

What Doesn’t Work: Like I said, Maria has always been a big flaky in that damsel old fashioned way, and it might have been cool to see her somehow reinterpreted with even more self assurance than what Ziegler manages to throw in every once in a while. Somehow the film feels like a jump forward in terms of progressive nature, but Maria is that one character that didn’t get the message. Not that Ziegler was bad, this is just how Maria is written. And I think that’s ultimately what kept her out of the Oscar race this year, even though she is much better than Natalie Wood. Yes, I said that out loud.

The Blind Perspective: It’s a musical first and foremost, so while you won’t get all the terrific dancing, or the glorious imagery, you will get the music and the performance. The audio description is fairly simplistic in nature, which I didn’t like. It approached this mostly straightforward, and focused a lot on the characters and their movement, and only talked about the scenes and what they looked like in some of the establishing shots where there were no people. There really is little to no description of dancing, outside of the actual dance, and I find it hard to believe that they stripped all the choreography from this film in all other sequences. Also, every pronoun was used for Anybodys, which is somewhat confusing. The character is obviously male identifying, but at first is referred to as she in the description, until the character proclaims that he is a boy, and later on “they” is used, possibly to suggest the character is non-binary? I don’t really know, but I wish that had been more consistent.

Final Thoughts: Steven Spielberg is a legend who just farts out tremendous works of art on a fairly regular basis. This is one of his best in quite a long time, and he made me fall in love with an IP that I previously wasn’t that much in love with. Packed with incredible music, vocals, and one of the best ensembles of the year, West Side Story is a film that demands to be watched. It’s as close to perfection as we can get these days, and for a remake, that says a lot.

Final Grade: A+

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