A couple of years ago, I attended a Fathom Events showing of the 1961 Best Picture Oscar winning movie West Side Story. That was the first time I had seen the movie starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and the fact was, I just did not enjoy it. I was surprised how much I did not like this iconic classic. Looking back, I found the relationship between Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer to be unrealistic and unbelievable. Those problems tainted the remainder of the film for me.
When I heard that Steven Spielberg was going to remake West Side Story, I was anything but anticipatory about it. However, 2021 has had a series of exceptional musicals, two of which will most likely make my Top 10 of the year, and plenty positive word of mouth floated around the Internet. That made me hopeful that the new version would be one that I could enjoy more than the first one.
Now having seen Spielberg’s version of West Side Story, I can say without doubt that this is yet another outstanding musical from 2021.
Of course, even if you have never seen West Side Story, the film or stage show, you have a general idea of what the story was about. Two rival gangs, the Jets (the poor white kids) battled with the Sharks (the Puerto Ricans) while Tony and Maria pulled their own little version of Romeo and Juliet.
The leads of the remake were Ansel Elgort as Tony and, making her feature film debut, Rachel Zegler as Maria. This film made me feel more of a connection between the two of them and the relationship did not ruin the rest of the film for me. They felt like there was more between them than just infatuation and I could then accept the choices made by Maria after Tony came to her after the ill-fate rumble.
Rachel Zegler is a star in the making. She was utterly tremendous here, not only with her acting, but with an absolutely gorgeous singing voice as well. While Ansel Elgort was not as brilliant in the acting area as Zegler, he was fine and had some really solid scenes. His voice was also great and it worked with Zegler’s voice well.
I loved Rita Moreno. Moreno won an Academy Award for her role in the 1961 version of the film, but now she played a character named Valentina and I thought she was amazing, bringing a depth to her character that may not have been there under a less actresses hands. Moreno was an executive producer on the project as well.
Moreno’s original character, Anita, was now played by Schmigadoon!’s Ariana DeBose, and she does a fabulous job. It could not have been easy for DeBose to play this role with Oscar winner Rita Moreno, who won for this very same role in 1961, on set, yet she brings such a power to the role and every song and dance is epic.
The music continued to be excellent, and Spielberg wisely did not make too many changes to the music of Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by the late Stephen Sondheim. Everybody in the cast could sing and did so beautifully throughout the film. The dance routines and scenes were wonderfully constructed and choreographed.
There were plenty of questions about whether this remake was necessary, but the passion brought to the project by director Steven Spielberg and the impressive ensemble cast answered those questions distinctly. Though a very long film, it did not feel that way and breezed through the 2 hours and 36 minutes like it was nothing. I liked this way more than I liked the original and it continues the renaissance of musicals from 2021.