“An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.”

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Tony Kushner, Arthur Laurents
Staring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Rita Moreno, Mike Faist
Release Date: December 10, 2021

If you saw West Side Story (1961), the original, then you know the story.

We are in the streets of New York City and the rival gangs of The Jets and The Sharks are going at it. The Jets are led by Riff (Mike Faist), and he is ready to do anything to protect his turf from whom he deems as invaders, the Sharks. The Hispanic crew are let by Bernardo (David Alvarez), and he will do anything to protect his family, and in particular his wife Anita (Ariana DeBose), and his baby sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler). The storm that was brewing in streets reaches new tempest levels when Tony (Ansel Elgort) comes onto the scene and steals Maria’s heart.

West Side Story is Romeo & Juliet, and that is it’s biggest weakness.

West Side Story is a visual striking film at times, but there is something about the story that is going to hold it back forever. I thought that with this remake they would revise the story and not make it so farcical with Maria sleeping with Tony just after he killed her brother. This is just my stance on it. Something about this story is always going to rub me the wrong way. I do not feel bad for the Jets at all and the way they behave towards the woman of the sharks and in particular Anita at the end. It makes none of them redeemable. Sure the Sharks can be assholes themselves, and Bernardo is an over-protective soul, but they were at least fighting for respect. The Jets are just fighting for turf, which in the end means nothing.

DeBose is a remarkable as Anita. With all the colorful crazy happening, DeBose pops more than any hue on the screen and her eyes, both when playful and hateful, pierce through whatever screen your watching and hit you in the gut. The role of Anita is build for someone who is willing top dive into the deep end. Her character has the largest range of emotions; the ultra happy, the ultra sad, the ultra betrayed and the ultra vindictive. While Bernardo is the character portrayed as the glue for the community, he always needs his women behind him. Anita is the case that is holding The Shark’s glue together.

The most surprising aspect of West Side Story is the character Tony the the performance of Ansel Elgort. When the casting for this movie was first revealed, Elgort was the one that most people worried about, but in the end, he sticks out in the best way because he made the most changes compared to the character’s original portrayal in 1961.

Elgort plays Tony as a much more humble young man. He has made mistakes and he has learned from them. He wants to make things right, but in his quest for love and the happiness of himself and Maria, he ends up inadvertently making things worse.

When Richard Beymer played the part in the original, he had a massive grin on his face in nearly every scene. He never had a worry in the world and he thought all of his problems would solved simply by the power of love. Elgort plays the part more subdued. He has confidence that love can help him solve it, but he does not have the ignorance that all problems will wash away. This rendition of Tony is Spielberg’s version is its best improvement upon his inspiration.

On a technical level, West Side Story does look spectacular. The colors are popping, most notably on the dresses of the Hispanic women. The set pieces are often set up with with wide lenses, landscape setting shots. Spielberg does an nice job establishing the wider scenes of New York with the microscopic viewpoints of the streets The Sharks and The Jets are fighting for. The lighting is dramatic, and the prime example is at the rumble. That sequence is the most intense of West Side Story and the visceral actions that transpire are accented nicely by the visual storytelling. The rambunctious boys literally turn on the lights of the salt mill, and then shut them off to tell the audience that what they are doing is meant not to be in the lime light.

Also, let’s be real. The overhead shot that shows the shadows of the two gangs coming towards each other is outstanding. It is made better by revisiting the same shot when the rumble is over and all you see is stillness and the aftermath of their actions.

The best song of West Side Story, and arguably the most beautiful sequence of West Side Story is the Anita led ballad, America. Arguably the most famous song in the musical, Spielberg and the cast create magic and also create the spotlight for DeBose to shine. It is beautiful and DeBose is the conductor of the musical climax of the movie. This is when hope is at it’s highest for Anita and her family. You feel like you are at the peak, but you are also aware that it can never stay this optimistic. However, when America gets going, you don’t care what’s coming next.

West Side Story is nominated for seven Academy Awards. Ariana DeBose is the front runner for best Support Actress, and I don’t have many gripes with that. It is also up for Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography and Best Directing. or me, myself and I, I personally have West Side Story nominated in four categories: Best Supporting Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design and Best Production Design. The only one I would consider as a winner is DeBose. Much like in the original, it is the role of Anita that makes the biggest splash.

West Side Story is a movie meant to appease the masses, and the great spectacles of dance and song are easy to get captured in. If you can look past the stupid decisions being made in the story, then you can enjoy yourself. For me, the through line of adolescent romance and love at first site is too much of a barrier to overcome.

STANKO RATING: B- (3.0/5 Stars)

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