Combustible Celluloid
With: 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
Written by: Tony Kushner, based on a play by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking
Running Time: 156
Date: 12/10/2021

West Side Story (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Oh So Pretty

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Steven Spielberg has been ramping up for a musical for his whole career, if you consider the whiz-bang "Anything Goes" opening number in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and even the whirligig dancing sequences in 1941. His long-awaited choice, West Side Story, comes just after the death of one of its creators, Stephen Sondheim, which lends an elegiac tone to the new movie. Spielberg's vision of the play brings it to a dying, decimated neighborhood on the verge of urban renewal. All of this, everything in the movie, is coming to an end.

Two outcast street gangs, the white trash Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks vie for control of the territory, a moot battle, given its finite future. Lanky, charismatic Riff (Mike Faist) is leader of the Jets, while nervy boxer Bernardo (David Alvarez) is the leader of the Sharks. The movie begins with a disquieting overhead shot, showing the ruins, then springs into the first number, the "Jet Song," as the gang steals cans of paint and proceeds to mar an image of the Puerto Rican flag.

The move from reality to song is surprisingly deft, and the concept of people "suddenly bursting into song," which bothers so many viewers about musicals, just isn't here. Life and music flow in a harmonious rhythm. Working from the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, Spielberg's musical numbers are glorious, exhilarating, especially the comic showstopper "Gee, Officer Krupke," which makes an Olympic gymnastics event look like a bingo game.

In any case, to recap: the story centers on Riff's pal Tony (Ansel Elgort), and Bernardo's sister Maria (a guileless, luminous Rachel Zegler), who lives with Bernardo and Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose). Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for playing Anita in the 1961 film version, now plays shop owner Valentina, replacing the male character Doc (he's her late husband here). I can only imagine what it was like for DeBose (who was the Bullet in Hamilton), to play Anita's big scene — her near-rape — in front of Moreno, but she's a champ. Plus, her rendition of "America" is just as powerful as Moreno's.

On the night of a big dance, thrown to ease tensions between the two gangs, Maria is forced to go there with a date, Bernardo's friend Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera), who has an education, and whom Bernardo is trying to keep out of the gang life. Tony, meanwhile, reluctantly goes to the dance, spurred on by Riff. Tony and Maria meet each other's gazes, and like Romeo and Juliet, the play on which the original is loosely based, they fall instantly in love. So much so that they make plans to run away together. ("Couldn't you just take her out for coffee?" asks Valentina.) This is where the movie doesn't have much juice. The couple is cute — like Tom Holland and Zendaya in a Spider-Man movie — but it never feels like they'll just die if they don't get to be together. Their romance never burns, and you don't feel their desire, their need.

Many are blaming this frigid bit on Elgort alone, which is a bit harsh. Elgort can act, and he can sing. He nails his solo number "Maria" as he wanders through Spielberg's amazing tenement sets, light gleaming through hanging laundry and rungs of fire escapes. But when he's face-to-face with Zegler, it's pretty clear that she outpowers him without even trying. He just doesn't have her pipes, and maybe lacks chemistry as well. She, on the other hand, is a dazzler. Who knows if she'll ever land a role this good again, but she's clearly a star.

Back to those sets, which never fail to fully enchant. They're like softened, poetic versions of rundown streets, as if Spielberg spotted their true, inner beauty and managed to covey it to us, unfiltered, on the screen. The cinematography by Janusz Kamiński matches the design; it has enough romance to make up for everything else. It's one of the most beautiful works I've ever seen, and that includes Kamiński's own past work. One memorable number is the snappy, scatty "Cool," which is performed under a tangle of broken girders, sticking up like the legs of a giant, deceased spider, the dancers sashaying lithely over holes in the floorboards, barely keeping themselves from plunging into the ocean far below.

I hadn't seen the 1961 film, co-directed by Robert Wise and Robbins, in quite some time, although the songs were pretty well buried in my head. It's not one of my favorite movie musicals. I see it as bombastic, a bulldozer, lacking the grace that my favorite musicals, by Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, etc., had. Spielberg has improved it, without losing any of the power of the musical numbers. His secret weapon, I think, is playwright Tony Kushner, whose brilliant screenplay for Spielberg's Lincoln was also a secret weapon. Kushner's between-song dialogue is thoughtful, even soft. It wonders, asks questions, doesn't always bark and shout. (Corey Stoll, as Lieutenant Schrank, is perhaps the best beneficiary of this dialogue.)

Spielberg's version runs only four minutes longer than Wise and Robbins's, 156 minutes versus 152, although, given our much longer credits here in the 21st century, Spielberg's is probably shorter. But it hits a draggy spot in the final stretch. The number "A Boy Like That/I Have a Love" is performed right after the death of Bernardo, and it doesn't quite click. (It was the only time I checked my watch.) Anita is so brokenhearted that singing the song feels false. I would rather have seen her grief without the song.

Still, this West Side Story is a magnificent achievement. Alongside In the Heights and tick, tick...BOOM! (and even Encanto), I'd argue that it makes 2021 the greatest year for musicals in film history. I am biased, since I tend not to go for big musicals based on big Broadway shows (the kind that used to win Oscars), and since there was nothing else as good as Singin' in the Rain in 1952. I'd have to go all the way back to 1933, when Busby Berkeley released two of his best, 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, and Fred and Ginger teamed up for the first time in Flying Down to Rio, for anything even close. But this year is the winner, by a song.

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