Almost a week after the worldwide premiere of the new film version of West Side Story, astounding reviews continue to pour in from critics, fans, movie lovers and thespians everywhere. West Side Story has long been one of my all-time favorite Broadway musicals, although my very first exposure to the work was through the 1961 movie starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris, followed by a viewing of the Broadway revival production in New York eleven years ago in 2010. I became even more appreciative of the story and its message of unity and acceptance when I was personally involved in an international production of the musical in 2017 with the Jakarta Performing Arts theatre group. When I learned that the great director Steven Spielberg was going to bring the musical back to the big screen, I was beyond thrilled that a new generation of movie and theatre fans gets to experience the West Side Story magic.
What I have seen is truly timeless, bold and fresh that I find myself gravitating towards this 2021 update even more than the original film. It truly is a wonderful and important piece of cinema. The plot, the cast, the music, the return of Moreno – who played Anita in the 1961 version and won an Academy Award for the role – as Valentina, and the overall production are really solid. Rachel Zegler is destined to be a movie star, and I’m so happy her talent is finally recognized globally with her graceful portrayal of Maria. Ariana DeBose is the perfect Anita, while Mike Faist and David Alvarez gave electric, scene-stealing performances as the leaders of the Jets and Sharks Riff and Bernardo. They both were as great as Tamblyn and Chakiris, and I’m glad to add both Faist and Alvarez to my list of new favorite actors.
One thing I notice about the film is it has a unique flavour in that it’s still West Side Story but with a touch of Steven Spielberg. As a Spielberg fan, I appreciate all the added scenes, alternate dialogues and gritty cinematography that brings a high level of realism to the movie. The Jets and Sharks’ intro scene feels like a real-life gang war. Also, while the original film presents itself more like a traditional stage production with isolated scenes, this one has a vibrant, realistic vibe. We could see regular New Yorkers passing by in the background and market stalls on the streets. It definitely feels like a New York story in the exact era where the story is set. The “America” number has a La La Land vibe to it, and setting it on the sunny streets of New York is simply perfect. It captures the spirit of the Puerto Rican community. Riff being there for the entire “Jets Song” is truly a delight, and the Mambo scene remains energetic and glorious. I enjoyed seeing more background stories from all the characters that enable viewers to understand why they do what they do.
Overall, West Side Story remains as iconic and cinematic as ever, and in 2021, it is still an important viewing. In multicultural places like America, racism never dies, but with West Side Story, there’s always hope for unity, acceptance and appreciation for diversity – there’s a place for us.
Special thanks to Mr. Spielberg and the entire cast and crew for keeping the timeless story and music going. And here’s to the influential Stephen Sondheim, who recently passed away, for helping give audiences all over the world such an impactful musical.