In what could have been described as a “Here We Go Again” moment, one of the finest and most beloved musicals has a new cinematic adaptation with much controversy by one of the finest filmmakers of our time nearly sixty years later. What takes this to another level is that after all this time, you would think in a sea of remakes and reboots that yet another rehashing of a previous movie would either be accepted or derided in an era of “new” and “flash”, where WEST SIDE STORY is more classy and from a completely different era that almost feels forgotten every time a Marvel Cinematic Universe picture clogs up multiplex screens.
So let’s talk about the original WEST SIDE STORY movie. The 1961 picture was a multi Oscar winning triumph, including winning Best Picture. It was the highest grossing movie of that year and into the next. It broke the mold of the roadshow musical era and pushed harder than other pictures of the time. It was a touch more violent and it brushed on race relations all to the tune of a timeless Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim score that swung for the fence. Filmmaker Robert Wise, who then went on to even bigger success with THE SOUND OF MUSIC and many other big movies, was at the height of his career with this picture, and even today it is still celebrated to new generations. It was a movie I saw as a teenager, by luck seeing a letterboxed presentation on the Bravo Canada cable network, and it was my gateway into this world. It THEN leading me to SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and my love for song in film, among many other types of cinematic expression. I don’t love EVERY musical ever made these days, of course, as movies are always a case-by-case basis, but WEST SIDE STORY is pretty much the Gold Standard.
So with that, this new 2021 movie comes with a lot of challenges. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg of all people decided to take the challenge of bringing his own vision to modern audiences. It’s a timeless love story based off of Romeo & Juliet, sure, but it’s that combination of the music by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim that this grand song-and-dance story is timeless. And it gives me great pleasure to report that this 2021 rendition of WEST SIDE STORY is a cinematic miracle and an out of body experience of epic proportions by one of our finest filmmakers alive. It is a release to celebrate. WEST SIDE STORY is a tremendous entertainment and in its own right, one of the best musical movies that can co-exist right alongside Wise’s original movie AND one of the finest studio movies I have seen in years. I am shaking as I write this, as to experience something like WEST SIDE STORY is something I can barely put into words. You don’t just watch this new movie but you experience it. You are uplifted into it and transfixed that will release “all the feels” into you, as the cool kids like to say now. It’s painterly images, colors and romance just take you to another level, and Spielberg has matched drama and song into something tangible.
Spielberg has changed very little from the original magical elements of the play and Wise’s movie; it’s still the classic love story of two warring gangs in New York City, the Jets & The Sharks, and the love story that comes between Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) amidst the chaos of gang violence in town. When the two meet at a local dance that the two gangs attend, immediate sparks fly and you can immediately feel a connection. But this of course sparks a local gang war and a “rumble” despite the local police being involved, and nevertheless the two push their love forward despite protest from their families. The story pushes back to its Shakespearian roots with many clashes and a looming tragedy that fascinates with every passing moment.
There are so many things that work in WEST SIDE STORY on its own terms, and again, there are so many ways this could have all gone wrong. Spielberg could have tossed his adaptation into modern times and put in too many familiar faces and big names. He could have made it a spoof, or pushed the comedic angle, or even tried to push some kind of modern angle. There even could have been post-credit scenes to open up a WEST SIDE STORY cinematic universe. Thankfully, Spielberg is a much more conservative filmmaker in this case. In what is a very tricky balancing act, he respects the original movie and all of its original creators but also, in an incredibly difficult feat, makes this his own presentation and takes the story truly back in time, like any great director should. For a filmmaker with nearly 50 years of filmmaking experience, at 74 years old he has crafted one of his finest accomplishments.
Every shot here is crafted with an eagerness to please; assisted with his regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski this feels like a painting come straight to life (and even the often discussed heavy lighting and lens flares are very much in effect here, and I love it) and you can clearly tell that great care was taken with every setup. Simple shots where you think Tony and Maria through metal grates have such depth to it that it makes more modern movies pale in comparison. There are long takes, short takes, long-fades and edits exactly where they are supposed to be. Mild hand-held shots also appear right when its needed, but do not overwhelm. Spielberg is also wise to just let a camera crane up and show 200 people dancing, completely in sync, like in the “America” sequence that will take your breath away, as one of many examples. Continuing his tradition to shoot on 35mm film stock, Spielberg and his team continue to showcase the power of the medium that still challenges all of the 4k and ultra-high-defintion cinematography of today.
The music itself shines through and while SOME of the compositions differ than in Robert WIse’s version, here Spielberg powers through. There really is something for everyone here, and my personal favourites are the tear-inducing love songs between Tony and Maria, but there are also sheer power notes in the Mambo-dance off that had the hairs on my arms standing up . Even though I knew many of the musical moments were coming, the presentation still rocked me to my core with many new surprises along the way.
One thing I have always loved about Spielberg’s casting is that he always gets the right people for every role and doesn’t always put big names into the larger roles in some of his pictures. I am a bit surprised that Ansel Elgort (BABY DRIVER) isn’t getting more acclaim for Tony here, as he really is a matinee idol movie star with his tall frame, slick hair and presence. He is matched by the stunning Rachel Zegler, who immediately draws you in from her very first shot from her apartment balcony. There’s also an incredible performance by Mike Fast as Riff, the leader of the Jets and even the use here of Rita Moreno from the original film is completely inspired. Even smaller roles, like Corey Stoll (MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, ANT-MAN) are exactly the right choice for this time and era. I know I have left many of the cast out here, but believe me when I say that every single performer here brings their A-game.
I know I have raffled off serious praise here, but at its core WEST SIDE STORY is also just a whole lot of fun and will have you tapping your feet and bobbing your head as the songs and drama moves right through you. Everything in Spielberg’s masterwork here is all done in complete respect for both cinema and the theatre. The original Robert Wise film still stands as the pinnacle of movie musicals and will continue to entertain generations, and my old Blu Ray copy has never had so many loans to friends. The late great Leonard Bernstein and recently departed Stephen Sondheim would be blown away by this adaptation, and modern audiences I truly hope warm to this lovely, classic style of grand filmmaking that I feel like I rarely see on cinema screens. My congratulations to every person who brought this motion picture to the big screen in 2021. In a truly challenging time, WEST SIDE STORY gives me hope.
WEST SIDE STORY is now playing in theatres.