December 14, 2021 – There has been an attempt to revive movie musicals in recent years, with passable musical movies like “La La Land,” (2016) “Les Misérables” (2012) and “Sing Street” (2016). The trouble is, musical movies are very hard to do. They take a rare combination of talents to make them work.
Last night, watching “West Side Story” (2021) in a local theater, I was reminded of what a truly great musical is. First of all, it takes great music and lyrics, in this case, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim provide those. Then you need a rock solid screen play, and Tony Kushner (a Pulitzer Prize winner) provides that. Then you need a great director and cinematographer, and Oscar winners Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski provide those.
Then you need a big cast of talented actors, singers and dancers, and they have those with Rachel Zegler (who plays Maria); Ansel Elgort (who plays Tony); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); Ana Isabelle (Rosalía); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); and Rita Moreno (as Valentina).
Rita Moreno, as Valentina, employs Tony in her corner drug store. She, of course, also starred as Anita in the multiple award-winning 1961 film version of “West Side Story.” Moreno, one of the very few to win Academy, Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Peabody Awards, is also an executive producer of this film, along with Kushner.
Even though “West Side Story” was written as a stage play in 1957, this new reimagining of the play as a movie seems as relevant as ever. Kushner's screenplay utilizes modern grievances over racism, immigration and gentrification to better define the conflict between the white gang of Jets and the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. These gangs are no longer juvenile delinquents with nothing better to do, but rivals defending their own territories and cultures against injustices and impending change.
Lieutenant Schrank, in breaking up a brawl between the two gangs early in the film, clearly favors the white gang, but also reminds them that they will eventually be replaced in this part of the city, simply because most whites are fleeing to the suburbs. The Jets are the kids of the whites who didn't have the ambition or ability to get out.
The Sharks resent the sense of entitlement that the Jets exhibit, how the police favor them, and all whites, and they also are angry about the fact that their neighborhoods are being torn down to make way for new construction. The neighborhood is being replaced by shiny new projects from which they will be largely excluded, like the Lincoln Center complex, which will be the province of the white elites of New York. The sets make it look like the neighborhood was bombed.
Against this background of racial and cultural conflict, Tony and Maria fall in love. Tony, who recently got out of prison after nearly killing another man in a gang fight, is trying to stay away from gang activities, despite the fact that he still has friends in the Jets. Maria faces the wrath of her brother, Bernardo, who is the leader of the Sharks.
Bernardo wants Maria to marry his friend Chino, a man who seems to be on his way up, both as a student and as a boxer. Bernardo sees Tony as an unworthy gringo who feels entitled to anything he wants, including Maria's love. Angry over Tony's intrusion into his family, he agrees to a grudge match fight between the Jets and Sharks for ultimate control of the neighborhood. The challenge to the Sharks is laid down by the leader of the Jets, Riff. To him, the neighborhood, and the Jets, are his whole life. He has nothing else.
Tony promises Maria that he will use his influence with the Jets to stop the fight, but he ends up right in the middle of it, with tragic consequences. The basic story, based on Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet, is powerful, dramatic and tragic. The two young lovers hope that their love will conquer all the forces working against them, but it doesn't.
This is not a remake of the 1961 film, it is a reimagining of the original play, and in certain respects, it hews more closely to the play script than the 1961 film did. It also looks more gritty and realistic than the earlier film did. But that magnificent music and those beautiful, haunting lyrics remain the central power of this work. Most musicals of recent years, have just one good song, a few have two or more. West Side Story is just loaded with memorable songs.
What Kushner and Spielberg have done here is to make the music and songs blend better into the story. The mood of the story is not broken by songs or dances inserted at an awkward times or places. In this version of the story, the part of Doc (played by a man, Ned Glass in 1961) is taken over by Doc's widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno) who does a wonderful job here as a wise neighborhood matriarch.
The star of the show is Maria, played by talented newcomer Rachel Zegler. She has a great singing voice and a commanding screen presence. Mike Faist gives a powerful performance as the defiant, but doomed Riff. Ariana DeBose (Anita) and David Alvarez (Bernardo) are electrifying dancers, fine singers, and convincing actors. This is a lively and haunting musical, and one of the year's best movies. It rates an A.
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