Movie Time: West Side Story

I ventured out to an actual movie theater to see West Side Story last night, and despite some discomfort about how many people were there, I’m so happy I went.

This is probably needless to say, but — spoilers ahead! I’m going to assume most people are familiar with the story (not to mention Romeo and Juliet) but if you’re not, don’t read on!

I grew up listening to the soundtrack of West Side Story, and the play and the movie have been around for so long that even if you’ve seen neither, the music should be pretty much instantly recognizable. So how does a new movie present something that everyone knows in a way that feels relevant?

The 2021 remake of West Side Story accomplishes this, and then some. First, it’s visually beautiful. The setting, the cinematography, and the costuming are all wonderfully done. The costumes, especially, are vibrant and deliver a message about the people and the emotions and the time, all on their own.

Second, there are some key differences between the original movie and this version, including adding more context and backstory that help bring the conflicts to life. In this version of WSS, the West Side is going through tremendous upheaval. From the opening shots, we see that the neighborhood is being demolished, part of the city’s project to clear the slums to make way for the new Lincoln Center, to be built on the same site. The Jets and the Sharks are fighting over rubble, basically. They each may want to claim the territory, but in the end, they’re all being pushed out to make way for something shinier and prettier.

The movie gives us a look into the motivations behind each group’s behaviors as well. The Jets are white and see themselves as “real” Americans, but they’re all descended from immigrants too — and in their case, the reason they’re running the streets as a trouble-making gang itching for a fight has to do with all their pent-up anger and frustration over their go-nowhere lives. They’re orphans or abandoned, the children of people who never made it. They literally have nothing to lose but their pride and their control over their own little corner of the world, where they can perhaps feel bigger than they are.

The Sharks appear to be more upwardly mobile in many respects. The Sharks have jobs and plans. They’re all recent immigrants, and they’re pursuing the American dream of a better life, but they’re having to fight for it along the way. Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks, is working toward a career as a boxer. Chino is kept out of the dirtier aspects of the Sharks — he’s studying to be an accountant, and is seen as the one with the best chance of actually getting away from street life.

Tony here is given a backstory as well, and it’s an interesting choice. Tony, along with best friend Riff, founded the Jets. In the original, he’s no longer involved, but we don’t exactly know why, other than that he’s trying to find a better life. In this new version, Tony is on parole after serving a year in prison for almost killing someone in a fight. He’s determined to do better and to be better, whatever that may mean for him, although we have to question his odds right from the start, since he’s still living in the same neighborhood where he came from, where the Jets are calling for his return day and night.

One of the things I found interesting in this movie is how clearly the timeline is spelled out. From Tony and Maria’s meeting at the dance in the gym, it’s only one day until the rumble. Yet in that day, Tony and Maria declare their love and pledge themselves to one another for ever and always. Maybe my reaction has to do with my own age, but watching the original West Side Story as a child, Tony and Maria seemed so grown-up to me. Watching the 2021 version, it’s clear that Tony and Maria are young adults — she’s 18, his age isn’t stated, but he can’t be more than a few years older. (Ansel Elgort may be even be a bit too old for the role — I think I would have liked seeing a Tony closer in age to Maria.)

Their ages are relevant – they’re instantly smitten and make vows of eternal love, but are we meant to see them as destined lovers, or as two teens who confuse infatuation with true love? If they’d had more time, would their relationship have worked? They’re full of wild emotion and passion, but in reality, they had a day together — that’s it. It works here, as yet another way of showing us the tragedy of their lives. We don’t know what might have been, but there was potential, at least, that’s cut short.

I actually find Anita and Bernardo’s love story much more deep and compelling. They’ve been together five years, they live as if married, are passionately in love with one another, but they see and understand the realities of their lives and the obstacles they face. And Anita, despite her commitment to Bernardo, doesn’t even get the dignity of being allowed to mourn him. She’s treated disrespectfully by the police investigating his death, and who can blame her for her part in dooming Tony after the treatment she receives from the Jets?

Also, I have to say that Anita has a powerful point to make in the song “A Boy Like That”. Tony shows up in Maria’s window fresh from the fight where he killed her brother. And yes, it was unintentional and he’s devastated, but still — he killed her brother. Who but a love-smitten teen-aged girl would still allow him into her bed and into her heart in that moment? It’s another way that the movie shows us their youth and impetuousness, and how at that age, emotion is everything.

Rita Moreno is in the movie as a new character, Valentina, the widow of the drugstore owner Doc who features in the original movie. She’s powerful and a moral center amidst the chaos, and I loved that she’s the one who gets to sing “Somewhere”, making it a mournful song about how unlikely it is for people from different sides to actually have hope and make a life together.

The cast of West Side Story is phenomenal — Rachel Zegler as Maria, Mike Faist as Riff, and Ariana DeBose as Anita are all stand-outs. The choreography (by Justin Peck) is fantastic, modernized and updated, but with callbacks to the feel of the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

This is a beautifully made movie. And despite having been familiar with the story for basically my entire life, I still found myself moved to tears by the end, hoping for an outcome different than the one I knew was coming.

I’ll definitely want to watch this again once it’s available to stream. Highly recommended.

6 thoughts on “Movie Time: West Side Story

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