West Side Story (2021)

In a word, it’s fantastic. Don’t wait for it to come to a streaming channel, and don’t wait to rent it. Just go to a big theater and watch it. You can thank me later.

I think I had the same thoughts and reactions as many did when I heard that Stephen Spielberg was going to do a new version of West Side Story. Why mess with a classic that was ground-breaking and innovative? It seemed unnecessary and … wrong. But this version is fresh, inventive, very cinematic, and (dare I say it?) even better than the original in many ways.

My wife and I just saw the original last week in preparation, and we were surprised by two things: how much we’d forgotten and how good it was. So yes, the original was firmly and lovingly placed in my mind when I saw the new one.

Where to begin? Director Robert Wise was a very good director (he edited Citizen Kane, and won his second director’s Oscar for The Sound of Music). The first film is now 60 years old, and still seems relevant and full of life. The music of course is first-rate and legendary, the cinematography still vibrant, and the two supporting stars Rita Moreno and George Chakiris (both Oscar winners for this film) still amazing to watch. Jerome Robbins’ choreography is still breath-taking, and the editing is top-notch.

Rita Moreno and George Chakiris with their newly-won Oscars.

Yet, in so many ways, the new version is stronger, more authentic, just as cinematically inventive if not more so, and has better performances all around. The original Maria and Tony (Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) are not really as bad as history has recorded. Wood is a good actress, and her scene at the end is actually stronger than Rachel Zegler’s new version. Of course Wood is White with a Russian background, and is as Latin as Taylor Swift. And of course she is dubbed by trouper Marnie Nixon (also the main singing voice for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). But Wood’s acting is stronger than she’s often given credit for. Beymer on the other hand is rather bland, but as has been pointed out, he brings more joy to the role than Ansel Elgort does in the new one (to me a rather meaningless observation, if still true). And Beymer was dubbed as well.

Zegler (left) and Wood

All of this brings me to perhaps the strongest aspect of the new one: the two leads are really good, and are a significant improvement over the 1961 version. Zegler’s real-life background story is the stuff of Hollywood legend (Google it if interested), and her acting is astounding, especially for a newcomer to film. When I first heard a recording she’d done a while back on a non-WSS song, I was afraid she’d bring a Disney princess approach to the singing with all the lightness and sweetness and pop sounds that entails. But Zegler’s voice is lovely and strong, if not quite (yet) glorious. But she is a real high soprano, and sings effortlessly and meaningfully. She’s also the right age for the part.

Elgort actually has the most problematic role as Tony. The character of Tony is the driver of most of the story’s action, but it is often what happens to him and around him that drives the plot. Tony himself is often more of a straw man than a character, and Beymer rounded it out his character with smiles, rather generic acting, and height. Elgort is actually an inch taller, seems more dangerous and is a better actor. He also does his own singing, which is a surprise to those who only know him from Baby Driver or The Fault in Our Stars. He has a lovely smooth voice, and his falsetto is pure and tender, which adds a sweetness to his character without his having to do anything to prove that Tony has that side to him.

The 2021 leads (left) and the 1961 leads

Traditionally, lead voices in Hollywood musicals tended toward the professional and semi-operatic, a trend apparently started by Louis B. Mayer, who replaced many a strong but “Broadway-sounding” voice with something more classic and standard. Bernstein took this to the extreme with his 1985 re-recording of the music with opera stars José Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa in the leads. This was apparently how he wanted it to sound “originally,” yet anyone who grew up with Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert singing the original Broadway version would likely disagree that the later effort is an improvement. All told, the two leads in the new West Side Story provide a pop-oriented sound backed by classical training. IMHO, this and the original Broadway version provide the definitive performances of these songs.

Lawrence and Kert, the original Maria and Tony on Broadway

The new West Side Story is respectful of the songs, their earlier performances, and the choreography, but updates things successfully. Sometimes the songs are in a different place (“I Feel Pretty”), and many of the solos or near-solos now share lines with other characters. The singing is less operatic, and slightly more casually enunciated, which works well. The one change I didn’t love (spoiler alert) was giving “Somewhere” to a character other than the leads. (Yes, I know that the leads didn’t sing it originally.) Zegler and Elgort sound so good together that I was disappointed not to hear them sing this song. The new placement and singer work thematically and historically, but I missed the duet, and a heartbreakingly lovely song only gets a musically mediocre treatment. (I can receive hate mail at markwdupre@gmail.com)

The choreography is clearly founded on Robbins’ work, but it has been updated by Justin Peck with a greater toughness but with just as much energy. Both versions are spectacular, and the dancing throughout this new film is stunning.

The first WWS had two of the greatest supporting performances of any film musical. The new one comes close, with Ariana DeBose (Hamilton and TV’s Schmigadoon!) standing side by side with Rita Moreno’s dazzling work. DeBose’s acting is full-blooded, her singing is strong, and her dancing is expectational—just try to take your eyes off her even in a large group number. She could never erase what Moreno did, but she stands on her own. Of course, if you know anything about the new film, you know that Rita Moreno appears again, this time as Doc’s widow and the owner of the drugstore. It’s not a cameo, and the casting isn’t a stunt. But the change only adds a historic rush to a small section of the viewing audience (like me); she’s fine and does her job admirably.

DeBose and Alvarez as Anita and Bernardo

David Alvarez is a tougher and more dangerous Bernardo than Chakiris, and he is just as good a dancer. (He won a Tony as one of Broadway’s Billy Elliots). But he doesn’t pop from the screen like Chakiris did, which isn’t his fault—the camera can be tricky. The one who does pop from the screen is Mike Faist as Riff, who rips the role from the softer and more likable Russ Tamblyn and completely remakes it in his own image. If anyone is going to get an Oscar nomination in the supporting category here, I would vote for Faist over Alvarez. A star is born.

Mike Faist redefining Riff

The screenplay provides more motivational context for the action, and allows the film to take its time explaining different character and plot dynamics. Screenwriter (and playwright) Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, both with Spielberg directing) tends to overwrite and he does here as well, but most of the changes are working to make the film more realistic and grounded.

To say that Spielberg does it again sounds like a cliché. He’s given us so many great films in so many different genres. I thought he might be stretching his talents too much by doing a musical—his first musical—and a remake of a revered classic, no less. This new West Side Story is an incredible piece of filmmaking. I was moved again and again, and as a sometimes-harsh critic when it comes to voices, I went back and forth between being impressed and being blown away.

The female half of the couple we saw the film with made what works as a final statement. This film was supposed to be released a full year ago, but it makes its appearance now. The tension and messages of West Side Story were relevant in 1957 and 1961, and in some similar and some different ways, are as powerful and pertinent today as at any time in our country’s history. Come for the music and dancing, and stay for the powerful messages (or vice versa).

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 45+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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