Tuesday, December 28, 2021

West Side Story - 2021 Film Review


West Side Story – the 2021 movie.
Release date: 26 December 2021 (Australia)
Directed by    Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by    Tony Kushner
Based on West Side Story by Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim,    Arthur Laurents


    Ansel Elgort
    Ariana DeBose
    David Alvarez
    Mike Faist
    Rita Moreno
    Rachel Zegler

Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński
Edited by Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar

Music by Leonard Bernstein

Reviewed by Frank McKone (December 27, 2021)

Photo: westsidestory.com

Photo: Nick Tavernise


This West Side Story is the real thing.  

It is not a romance, but an insightful tragedy.

Just as Shakespeare intended in his story of Romeo and Juliet set in the newly-wealthy upper-class merchant family society in which he grew up in the 1500s; and as Stephen Sondheim intended in his Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) story of social inequality in his America of massive economic ‘development’ in the 1950s; so the story presented by Steven Spielberg is the tragedy of unintended consequences, warning us in the 2020s that human greed ultimately ends in disaster.

It is bad enough that we as a total world-wide community cannot get our act together to properly and fairly manage the current pandemic – whose existence is essentially natural.

Far worse is our belief in our need for continuously growing wealth which not only causes the divisions between the haves and the have-nots, the in-groups and the out-groups, and the impossibility of acceptance – let alone love – across social boundaries which Shakespeare, Sondheim and Spielberg have all recognised; but also that human greed has now taken us beyond dancing against each other with menacing clicking fingers – way beyond Jets and Sharks upsetting social norms – to the point where human induced heating of the earth is likely to end ignominiously in the death of humankind, represented by the killings of the men at the end of West Side Story with no sense of a future for the women.

Spielberg has been careful to set his movie realistically in the New York of the 1950s, adapting the arts of music, photography and dance, and acting – as originally written by Sondheim and directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins – to show a picture of how and why the street gangs existed as an necessary element of that society.  Spielberg didn’t need to ‘update’, just as Shakespeare didn’t need to ‘update’ Verona.  For us, today, 1950s New York is as far distant as Verona was for Londoners in 1597.

Jerome Robbins’ work on stage transported audiences everywhere into the world of the drama, as all good theatre must.  He made the dance the conduit for our imaginations.  The 1961 movie failed because Ernest Lehman’s screenplay and the directing by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins could not make us believe in the reality of the situation.  The dance, the photography and the acting made the story a mere romance.

Spielberg’s film is of the gritty reality.  The dancing in the streets is integrated into the social life of the have-nots in the streets where their homes are being destroyed by big business ‘re-development’ – and that transports us into that reality.

The result, in my view, is that Spielberg’s West Side Story is a substantial work of art, just as Robbins himself achieved on stage.  Though the advertising describes the 2021 movie as Musical/Romance  2h 36m, I can promise you that after those 2 hours and 36 minutes of Tony’s attempt to believe in himself, after a year’s contemplation in jail for having nearly killed a man in a ‘rumble’ as the previous leader of The Jets, and watching Maria’s realisation that she is left with no option but to do her best for herself despite everything, you will leave the theatre seeing the world around you for what it really is.

You’ll not forget Rita Moreno.  She plays the widow of Doc, still running the drugstore he used to run in the original stage show.  She is the one character who understands the reality and the need for compassion and common sense in an uncertain world.

The Jets and The Sharks
Confrontation in the Dance Hall
Photo: westsidestory.com

Rita Moreno
as Mrs Doc
Photo: westsidestory.com

PS You don't need to know anything about the original stage show or the old movie.  This West Side Story stands alone.  Don't miss it.