West Side Story directed by Steven Spielberg is now in theaters!
I do not like musicals. I did not like the original 1966 West Side Story. Although it is a classic, and watching it to familiarize myself with the story was akin to a root canal. The only musicals I can get through semi-painlessly are Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The reason I can is because I find the stories entertaining, relatable, and/or humorous. On that note, I did not have high hopes for the new adaptation of West Side Story starring Ansel Elgort as Tony and unknown actress Rachel Zegler as Maria.
Fortunately, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is, well… a different story entirely.
Spielberg sets the pace with an unforgettable cast, namely, of course, Ansel Elgort as Tony and the debut of Rachel Zegler (Maria) in her first-ever big-screen production. Zegler first played Maria in a Performing Arts School presentation at Bergen Performing Arts Center but was not cast in a film. However, her role in West Side Story was heart-wrenchingly remarkable. Maria is already a loveable character with her captivating family life and eager childlike love for Tony; Zegler added a fresh face and incredible acting talent. Her performance ensured there was nary a dry eye leaving that theater. Maria’s character arc is very relatable. Maria is naïve by nature. That leads her to love Tony regardless of circumstance, even though it ultimately leads to the demise of many. From her humble beginnings to her transformation into a hateful, bitter woman, Maria is sure to capture the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.
Elgort plays a sensitive yet tough Tony, creating a believable and relatable would-be-murderer turned compassionate. Tony, who spent time in prison for almost murdering a boy during a fight, has changed his ways and wants to remain morally just. However, this proves difficult as his friends and fellow gangsters pressure him to participate in a rumble against the Puerto Rican Sharks invading the Jets’ “territory.”
Rita Moreno being cast as Valentina, Doc’s wife and Spielberg’s replacement for Doc, was genius. The way Valentina was integrated so effortlessly added to the storyline instead of distracting from it. The interaction between Anita and Valentina toward the end is gut-wrenching and devastating; I won’t spoil it but keep an eye out for their conversation. It evokes so much pain and betrayal I honestly couldn’t hold back tears.
The symbolism throughout the film is astonishing and perfectly executed.
In the beginning scenes, we see the primarily white (Irish, Italian, Polish, etc.) Next, the Jets remove a restaurant sign proclaiming ‘Criollo Cocina’ to reveal an Irish pub sign beneath, much to the dismay of the building’s proprietor. The Jets then defaced a Puerto Rican mural with paint and segue into the Puerto Rican Sharks jumping them.
The costumes are spot-on, with the Jets donning typical greaser garb and the Sharks wearing more traditional tunics or brightly colored polos with the buttons undone. Even the way the police interact with the different groups shows the hierarchy: rich people, the Jets, then the Sharks struggling to make it in a dog-eat-dog world. In an apparent salute to “Romeo and Juliet,” Tony and Maria are in a church. We see a statue of a woman lying on her back with her arms crossed, eyes closed in inevitable death. This symbolic tribute is incredibly well-integrated and brings a nostalgic sense of naïvety. The symbolism at the end, with the mock funeral procession being joined by all bystanders, was absolutely heartbreaking and so emotional.
The score Leonard Bernstein created for the film is stunning. It evokes exactly the right emotions at precisely the right time. In addition, the way the scenes mimic single-stage production yet flow seamlessly into the world allows for complete immersion and complete believability.
I give Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story a 9 out of 10. I was prepared to suffer through this movie, but I left with such wonder. The film would have gotten a perfect score had there been more Latino representation in the executive filmmaking. Aside from executive director Rita Moreno, I, unfortunately, noticed the majority of the decision-making crew were non-Latino. The movie’s premise is Puerto Rican pride being squashed by society, so it would have been refreshing to see a staff with more Latino voices aside from the actors. Ultimately I highly recommend you run, don’t walk, to see Spielberg’s 2021 adaptation when it’s available on December 10th!
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