At the Movies with Alan Gekko: West Side Story “2021”

MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Musical Drama/ Stars: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Rita Moreno, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera, Iris Menas, Mike Iveson, Jamila Velazquez, Annelise Cepero, Yassmin Alers, Jamie Harris, Curtiss Cook, David Avilés Morales, Sebastian Serra, Ricardo A. Zayas, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Ricky Ubeda, Andrei Chagas, Adriel Flete, Jacob Guzman, Kelvin Delgado, Carlos Sánchez Falú, Julius Anthony Rubio, David Guzman, Ana Isabelle, Tanairi Sade Vazquez, Yesenia Ayala, Gabriella M. Soto, Juliette Feliciano Ortiz, Jeanette Delgado, Maria Alexis Rodriguez, Edriz E. Rosa Pérez, Ilda Mason, Jennifer Florentino, Melody Martí, Gaby Diaz, Isabella Ward, Sean Harrison Jones, Jess LeProtto, Patrick Higgins, Kyle Allen, John Michael Fiumara, Kevin Csolak, Kyle Coffman, Daniel Patrick Russell, Ben Cook, Harrison Coll, Garrett Hawe, Myles Erlick, Julian Elia, Eloise Kropp, Paloma Garcia-Lee, Leigh-Ann Esty, Lauren Leach, Brittany Pollack, Kellie Drobnick, Skye Mattox, Adriana Pierce, Jonalyn Saxer, Brianna Abruzzo, Halli Toland, Sara Esty, Talia Ryder, Maddie Ziegler/ Runtime: 156 minutes

I think it best to start this review off by confessing a pair of things to you dear reader. The first is that I am extremely picky when it comes to watching movie musical adaptations. I mean don’t get me wrong: I love Into the Woods, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, Rent, In the Heights, and All That Jazz from 1979 among others…and then there are others like the original West Side Story, Annie, and Oklahoma that I was just never onboard with for reasons that yes do extend past me simply being a “grumpy old cynic with no heart or soul”. At the same time, the second thing I would like to confess to you is that I am a diehard fan of Steven Spielberg. Indeed be it Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Post, Duel, and everything in between I am the kind of person who has given everything this truly iconic masterclass film helmer has decided to gift the world with at least a single watch…..so *of course* he had to put me in quite the predicament and remake West Side Story. With that being said though, I think it is quite safe to say that in the lead-up to the release of his take on this “iconic property”, there was always a question in the back of my mind as to just what would propel this icon of cinema to take such a project on to be his 38th film. Of course, I can see that on one hand there is the chance for the man to make a giant and vibrant musical, a realm that Spielberg has astonishingly never ventured in during his career of close to 6 decades. At the same time however, this slice of cinema is not just a remake, but a remake of a film that took home the Best Picture Oscar for the year 1961. I mean it can easily be said that since Spielberg is one of those helmers who is on the short list for being permitted to just do whatever he wants why in the world would he walk where others had “brilliantly” done so the first time around just so he could say he finally made a musical? Well as it turns out this was not something I could tell you before this slice of cinema came out since the only way to properly answer this question is to just, however begrudgingly on my part, sit down and watch this take on the property. In that respect, this slice of cinema’s core narrative is the same as the “iconic” musical from 1957 and adaptation from 1961 in that this is a transporting of the story of Romeo and Juliet, but placing it amongst a pair of warring gangs in mid-1950s New York City. Past that however, what Spielberg has been able to achieve with respect to this particular genre is nothing short of phenomenal. This is because with this movie, we as movie goers are able to see that Spielberg has managed to give us a fairly riveting slice of cinema both in terms of atmosphere and visuals complete with some truly incredible dance numbers as well as an ensemble cast, save one, that is top-flight in every sense of the word. Thus West Side Story “2021” truly is more than just for, those who can get behind it, true magic in every sense of the word. Rather, it is also proof that, with the right director at the helm, even something legendary can be just as phenomenal the second time around as long as it’s made with the same degrees of heart, passion, and soul as this one clearly was.

The plot is as follows: Now much in the same vein as the Broadway musical from 1957 and the prior cinematic adaption from 1961 respectively this slice of cinema gets underway as we witness a currently in-progress turf conflict between a gang that is by and large white young men known as the Jets, a gang consisting primarily of white inner-city youth, and a group that is symbolic of the rising (at that time) population of people coming to this country from Puerto Rico known as the Sharks. Thus as New York City continues to engage in the process of urban development which, when done, will bring forth a new era for the wealthy and powerful, we see that for either of these groups to have a chance at survival they will have to gain more territory than they already have even as racial prejudices threaten to push both groups into all-out war to such an extent that the leaders of both sides consisting of a pair of young men named Riff and Bernardo respectively have no qualms whatsoever about making this fight one to the bitter end. We soon see that stuck firmly in the middle of all these fireworks are a pair of youth by the name of Maria and Tony who immediately fell for each other upon first laying eyes on each other at a dance. Complicating matters is the fact that Maria is Bernardo’s sister and Tony used to help lead the Jets until he nearly killed a guy and is recently out of prison simply trying to put his life together and be a better man. Yet despite these complications hanging overhead, we see the pair fall strongly for one another to the point that they plan to leave the city together, but unfortunately the possibility of them being able to pull it off is thrown into doubt as the possibility of all-out war between the two gangs seems more and more likely with each day. Thus finding themselves worried for those they care about and not wanting to head out without trying to settle things once and for all, we see our lovebirds attempt to cool things down between the gangs courtesy of attempting to get them not to engage in the planned rumble which is seen by both groups as a final clash so to speak. Unfortunately, it isn’t long before we see that no matter how hard they try all that seems to be happening is that Maria, Tony, and everyone in their lives are all on a collision course with disaster and that by the time the dust has settled everyone’s lives will be changed forever….

Now right off the bat I will note that when this iconic story was first conjured up for the theater by the iconic talents that are Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents respectively, it was a (for the time period) present day narrative that was aiming to showcase a specific mood and vibe that was afoot in America back in the 50s. It is with that in mind that Spielberg’s take on the property of course throws that point of view to the curb even as it keeps the locale, making it very much rooted in the 50s, but by doing so this manages to give this slice of cinema a chance to access a distinct and novel magic. Indeed it’s not only riveting (and not gonna lie a little bit chilling) to see just how timely a lot of the social commentary this slice of cinema is operating with really is today especially with respect to the commentary on attitudes toward law enforcement, and conflict between different groups of people because of racial prejudices among others, but it is also dealt with in such a manner that it doesn’t feel like Spielberg simply recreated the period on a sound stage. Rather, I think Spielberg has just managed to achieve time travel and kept it all to himself. At the same time, no this remake doesn’t hesitate to liberally borrow from the 1961 slice of cinema courtesy of iconic shots from that one, but at the same time it also constructs on that foundation with an immensely majestic scope and is, in in every single component from costumes and make-up to production design, a truly immersive viewing experience and one that those who love this movie are definitely going to want to buy on Blu-ray.

Yet perhaps the other brilliant choice that Spielberg makes when it comes to this slice of cinema is how this film’s ensemble cast is, by and large, newbies to the silver screen. This is because by not being able to remember if you’ve seen these performers from other films, it helps the film really sell the audience on the idea that they are literally looking back in time. At the same time, it might be a gamble for your movie to have talent that, by and large, are new to the silver screen, but thankfully Spielberg’s gut instinct proves to be on point. Now that’s not saying that the experienced cast members such as Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James and Rita Moreno don’t do wonderful work in their respective parts of Lieutenant Schrank, Officer Krupke, and Valentina (who is a new take on the iconic character Doc from both the play and the original film), but it is ultimately the new kids on the Hollywood block who help this film to truly soar. Indeed, among the newbies, we see Arian DeBose as Anita is perhaps the biggest scene stealer as she is downright phenomenal especially during her big musical number of “America”. Yet she also doesn’t lower the amount of talent displayed by Rachel Zegler who, as the female lead Maria, gives audiences a take on the character that is truly nothing short of iconic. We also see that as the two gang leaders who are consistently butting heads Mike Faist and David Alvarez are both phenomenal and of course I immensely enjoyed the work done by Kevin Csolak, John Michael Fiumara, Jess LeProtto, Ben Cook, Myles Erlick, Patrick Higgins, and Kyle Allen in bringing vividly to life the immensely engaging “Gee, Officer Krupke” musical moment in the film. Sadly, the acting department is where this slice of cinema runs into its one weakness and its name is Ansel Elgort. Now don’t get me wrong: I loved Elgort’s work in Baby Driver from 2017 and he does do fairly good work when he has to sing such as in the duet with Maria on her balcony. Other than that, Elgort really doesn’t seem like he fits in with this film at all to the point that whenever he’s on screen he really does take from the character of Tony more than he gives. An issue that, even as Elgort attempts to give it his all, proves to be a bit problematic since Tony is the main male character.

All in all even with that minor stumbling block in place however, I definitely feel that this is most assuredly not an issue that this slice of cinema has to worry all that much about. That’s because, as much as I may or may not begrudgingly have to admit this, this slice of cinema is one that has an incredible amount of both beauty and grace to it. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that manages to beautifully merge together the grace and skill of Spielberg in the director chair, the truly iconic song and dance numbers from iconic duo Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein and the wonderfully intelligent writing from Tony Kushner that does a respectful job at showing both sides of the conflict and making them both equally heroic and villainous dependent on your perspective. Yet more than that, this is a slice of cinema that right from the word go reels you in and takes you on a journey that immediately results in you, the viewer being able to see the immensely skilled manner in which a lot of this film deals with the feelings of anxiety, heart, love, fury, and fear of losing the only home you have ever known that a lot of us may have felt when we were a certain age. Suffice it to say therefore that yes West Side Story is a truly timeless story, but this remake is one that for no less than 2 and a half hours will remind you that cinema in the right hands truly can be just as timeless if not more so. Make of that what you will dear reader. On a scale of 1-5 I give West Side Story “2021” a solid 4.5 out of 5.