Reviewed by: Alexander Malsan
Rival, violent criminal street gangs in 1950s New York
What is true love and how do you know when you have found it?
ORIGIN OF ETHNIC PEOPLE GROUPS—How could all ethnicities come from Noah, his three sons and their wives? Answer
Ansel Elgort … Tony
Rachel Zegler … María
Ariana DeBose … Anita
David Alvarez … Bernardo
Rita Moreno … Valentina
Brian d'Arcy James … Officer Krupke
Corey Stoll … Lieutenant Schrank
Mike Faist … Riff
Josh Andrés Rivera … Chino
Iris Menas … Anybodys
Sebastian Serra … Braulio
Ricardo Zayas (Ricardo A. Zayas) … Chago
Jacob Guzman … Junior
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See all »
|Distributor||20th Century Studios, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Studios, a division of The Walt Disney Company|
New York City, 1950s. The streets are alive, but broken. While New York City has become a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities living together, this has not necessarily led to a peaceful coexistence. It also doesn’t help that different homes, apartments and condos are being torn down to make way for luxurious hotels, convention centers and plazas while racial tensions are occurring among the different communities.
Take, for example, the Jets (led by their leader “Riff”) and the Sharks (led by their leader “Bernardo”). The Jets, an Irish-American group of street—gangsters from downtown Manhattan, have had control of a large portion of their territory for quite some time. They see themselves as superior to all the other street gangs, especially to newcomers like the Sharks. The Sharks, however, are a Puerto-Rican group of street-gangsters that have claimed turf in Manhattan. Please, people, can’t we all just get along?
Apparently not. In fact, the Jets and Sharks are seen fighting each other quite often. One Jet that isn’t quite onboard with the street life anymore is a recently released and former criminal (turned nice guy), Anton (aka “Tony”) (Ansel Elgort).
On parole, Tony is trying to rebuild his life with honest work and by keeping his head low, until he meets the beautiful Maria (Rachel Zegler) while at a local school dance that the Jets and Sharks attend. It’s love at first sight for the two of them. Neither really cares that one’s a Shark and one’s a Jet. But the gangs themselves? Well, that’s a WHOLE ‘nother story.
The 1961 iconic film-musical, “West Side Story,” is a gem. There are some that would never have believed it was conceivable to reboot a story like “West Side Story.” If anyone was going to take on the challenge though, it was Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg as you are aware already has a plethora of Academy Award-winning films ranging from sci-fi to drama to historic and even biographical. So why was he so interested in dipping his hands into the film musical genre? Was it just to add another genre to his long list of successes, or was there something more?
In an interview with The Guardian, Spielberg mentioned that he grew up listening to and enamored with “West Side Story” and the soundtrack…
“It has never left my life,” he says. “I’ve played the cast album to my kids. They memorized the songs growing up. I’ve got videos where I’m running around the place playing Officer Krupke and all the Jets. Those videos prove how ‘West Side Story’ has permeated my entire life and the lives of my kids and grandkids. It’s crazy!”
Did it need to be remade? No, not really. As I said, the 1961 version is a prize. However, what Mr. Spielberg has done with this version of is extraordinary. From the iconic whistle heard at the beginning while staring at a blank screen to the very final blow at the conclusion of the film, every detail is carefully considered. However, Spielberg wasn’t trying to copy the 1961 version scene-for-scene. There is some originality to be found in some additional scenes that were NOT in the original 1961 film and backstories for primary and secondary characters that provide more depth and, perhaps, a new perspective.
One also cannot forget the breathtaking camerawork on display. From the first overhead view of the city, to the intimate closeups, every moment felt like I was transported to 1950s New York City. As one person mentioned in another review, I appreciated that the movie was filmed in a tinted-like fashion to make it seem like it was a film from the 1950s/60s.
The music cannot and should not be understated. From what information I could gather, there were many brilliant musicians who were brought into the fold for this project, including, composer David Newman who arranged and adapted Bernstein’s original score for the film. Gustavo Dudamel conducted the New York Philharmonic during the film’s recording sessions in 2019 (and some additional music was performed by the London Philharmonic). Jeanine Tesori served as vocal coach, while frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams served as music consultant.
Additionally, all of the songs were pre-recorded and used as playback on set, with the exceptions of “One Hand, One Heart” “Somewhere” and “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” which did not use the playback and were instead sung live on set. Portions of “Maria” were also sung live on set without the playback, as per Ansel Elgort’s request (he plays Tony). This attention to detail allowed for an impressive experience. Everyone’s voices were simply breathtaking, including newcomer Rachel Zegler (who plays Maria). But the person who really steals the show is Rita Moreno, who you may remember as Anita in the 1961 film. Not only does she play a completely different role in this adaptation (which I won’t spoil), but in the one solo she DOES have, she brought me to tears.
I do have one major issue with this adaptation of the film: the role of Anybodys. In the stage show and 1961 film, Anybodys is portrayed as a tomboy desperate to become a Jet, but in this 2021 version he/she is portrayed as a transgender character played by the “non-binary” actor Iris Menas. In fact, before the most comedic moments of the film, a scene in the 2021 film is added that is devoted JUST to point out that Anybodys is transexual (one of the Jets argues that he swears he checked and saw “something” underneath Anybodys skirt, if you catch my drift). There was absolutely no need to change Anybodys for the 2021 adaptation, but the filmmakers did so to conform to and find acceptance from the LGBTQA+ community.
VIOLENCE: Heavy. A character is shot twice and killed. A character is punched in the face repeatedly while refusing to fight, but eventually defends himself by almost beating another character to death. Two characters are stabbed to death. The Jets and Sharks beat each other up mercilessly before the police arrive. A character points a gun against a Jet’s forehead (the Jet dares him to shoot). A Jet pretends to shoot a real gun at the other Jets. Two characters discuss what weapons they will bring to a brawl (knives, bricks, chains, etc.) and later we see that the Jets and Sharks bring these items to the brawl. A kid has a nail in his ear after an incident. We see the Jets vandalize a painting of a Puerto Rican flag. We see a Jet rip a sign off a store. A character pushes another character. We see some characters boxing each other. A girl is slapped in the face by another girl.
VULGARITY: Heavy. “You shriveled d*ckhead dago pansy,” “Go s*ck on your sister’s t*tty.” “Go s*ck a pickle” (1), “Got a rocket, in your pocket,” fathers “knocking up some local pieces” (1), “Sh*t” (2), “Bullsh*t,” “Krupt You” (Takes the place of the F-bomb in a song), spic(s) (5), gr*ngo(s) (6), “big dumb pollack” (1), “d*ck” (1), “d*ckless wonder” (1), “P*shes tea” (drug reference) (1), “Mother has a mustache, father wears a dress” (1), “Cr*p,” “Who gives a fart?” (1), “A**” (2), “As long as he’s hot”
SEX: Two characters share passionate kisses in a few scenes. Two other characters share a couple kisses. As mentioned, Anybodys in this adaptation is played by an actor/actress who considers themselves non-binary and the character is transgender. Two characters are seen in bed together. Song lyrics include “A boy like that wants one thing only, and when he’s done, he’ll leave you lonely.”
NUDITY: Two characters are seen in bed together (we see their bare shoulders). Some female characters wear short shorts and one wears a revealing t-shirt. Upper male nudity. In some dance numbers, when the dresses move undergarments can be seen underneath. Cleavage.
DRUGS: Someone is shown smoking a cigarette. Cigarettes are mentioned in a song. Marijuana is referenced twice (once in a scene and once in a song).
ALCOHOL: Characters on a rooftop are seen drinking before a brawl.
OTHER: There are some themes involving racism and immigration layered throughout the film (they are much more present in this adaptation than in the original version [e.g., Puerto Ricans are reminded to speak English]). There is a scene at a morgue with two dead corpses.
There are many themes to draw from in a musical like “West Side Story.” One that really drew my attention was the theme of “hate.” It is apparent from the very first scene that the Jets and the Sharks, for no good reason, truly hate each other.
“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” —Ephesians 4:31
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” —Luke 6:27-28
“West Side Story,” in 1961, set out to reinvent the timeless tale of Romeo and Juliet and introduce it to a new generation, just as the musical “Godspell” was used to help the youth understand the story of the Gospel better (in a more contemporary, yet respectful, manner).
As many other reviewers have pointed out, “West Side Story” (2021) is sure to inspire a brand new generation of audiences, just like the 1961 version did. This is certainly one of Spielberg’s finest works, and I’m sure no doubt this film will be a contender for many Oscars come February.
There are some issues of concern at play here, however, that will deter some from attending. The fact that Anybodys is transgender in this film is a red flag and entirely unnecessary. There is also some unnecessary sexual content and foul language that wasn’t present in the 1961 version. I definitely don’t think young kids should see this film.
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.