“West Side Story” (2021) Review

West Side Story

West Side Story

 – for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Rita Moreno, David Alvarez
Running Time: 2 hours, 37 minutes
Theatrical Release Date: December 10, 2021
Digital Release Date: March 2, 2022

Plot Summary

An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. (from IMDB)

Film Review

The latest Hollywood fan favorite to get the remake treatment is the popular musical, West Side Story. With Steven Spielberg – surprisingly – behind the lens on this one (apparently a career-long dream of his to do), you can definitely expect it to be given a pretty professional upgrade. However, if you hate musicals, even having Spielberg at the helm probably won’t be enough to change your mind about them.

West Side Story
I’m fickle when it comes to musicals. I’ve enjoyed movies like La La LandHail CaesarMy Fair LadyDown with Love and Mary Poppins Returns, but I haven’t been much of a fan for more dramatic offerings, like Les Miserables or… this new version of West Side Story. I’ve never seen the original film, or any stage version of this famous play, so really, Spielberg’s remake is my first direct experience with the story (aside from pop culture references). Of course, I did hear some controversy over the cast and some plot elements, but I decided to try to give it a fair shake. After all, it’s a story set in a bygone era of the mid 1900’s, and I am a pretty big fan of movies from this age.

Unfortunately, while West Side Story is set on the streets in the 1950’s, it is about as 2020’s as you can expect. And while it’s a film from 20th Century Studios (AKA formerly 20th Century FOX), it’s now officially a Disney-owned production, and those Disney social politics do eek their way into the production. Whether or not it’s all Spielberg’s choices or some studio tinkering, I don’t know, but the end result is undoubtedly trying to appeal to today’s wacky social trends.

West Side Story
Before I get on my soap box for more on those topics, I’ll address the film as a whole. This story is so famous, you’re likely to recognize at least a song or two even if you’ve never seen a single rendition of West Side Story. I haven’t, and I still recognized at least 3 of the featured songs. The casting is mostly tight, with Ansel Elgort playing the lead of Tony, and Rachel Zegler as his forbidden love interest, Maria. There are a lot of Romeo & Juliet vibes here, but it’s less about warring families and more a commentary about cultural conflicts and warring street gangs (tomato / tomahto, I suppose). The street gang cast themselves are also pretty solid, with a lot of new, fresh faces leading the packs. Spielberg knows how to wrangle up some reliable talent and this movie is no exception. (I was honestly shocked to hear Ariana DeBose was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Anita, though. I thought she overdid her performance, in my opinion. But to each their own I guess. Maybe I just didn’t care much for her character.) David Newman delivers a stage-ready cinematic score that does feel a hair too melodramatic at times, but fits the old school setting of the story. The sets and cinematography are breathtaking; it’s amazing how genuinely this movie transports the viewer to the past. (Some of the 50’s imagery gave me Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull PTSD, but it was infrequent as this production is leaps and bounds above that previous Spielberg effort.) Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original West Side Story movie, makes an extended cameo as Valentina, which is a nice way to tie the two productions together (even though this movie is said to be more so based on the original play than the movie.) Overall, the quality is here, no doubt, but like the musical genre itself, it’s a truly acquired taste.

Now, for my beefs about the movie, I’ll start with some story gripes. Some of the things the characters decide to do seem kind of ridiculous and irrational. It’s only worsened when they break into song and debate about it, and it’s tough to feel bad about their circumstances when characters are making such idiotic choices. When the drama hits the fan in the last act, it’s hard to care about what transpires, especially when some of it is just downright silly, and you know they brought the trouble down on themselves.

West Side Story
And that takes me to the modern social heavyhandedness that comes across in the movie. To be fair, racial tensions are common today, so it’s actually a painfully relevant subject, but other things feel painfully out of place, like Iris Menas (a “trans actor”) playing a girl named Anybodys who dresses up like one of the boys and tries to be a part of the Jets gang. The guys won’t let her because she’s a girl (even though she insists she’s not), and it’s a plot element that continues throughout the entire movie until the end when they sort of accept her, and call her “buddy boy.” (Even after the Jets had done some truly terrible things.) It’s odd, too, as her story of acceptance doesn’t fit into this broken narrative about a couple of gangs who kill and maim because of their hate and intolerance of each other. Was having the story be about racial tensions really not enough? We really needed society’s marred confusion over sexual identity to play a part in this? (Let me help you answer that — it’s “no.” The answer is “no.”)

The content for West Side Story is a little rough at times. It’s mostly violence, especially in the last act when things get a little bloody, as well as a bit more language than you might expect. There are some “F” word substitutes (like “motherloving”) and 3 uses of the “S” word, which isn’t excessive, but there is also quite a few uses of “g*dd*man” and Jesus’ name in vain. (Which is par for the course for Spielberg movies.) There is also some racial name-calling, like “spick” for the Puero Ricans, and some remarks about Pollocks are also made. There is no explicit sexual content, but we see a teen boy and a teen girl in bed (he doesn’t have a shirt on and she has the sheet pulled up over her chest), implying they just slept together. There’s also the aforementioned trans character (which is anything but subtly handled), and an attempted gang rape scene where Anita is getting roughed up by a group of boys (tugged on, pushed around), until it’s broken up before anything worse happens. The violence is seldom graphic, but we see a boy with a nail through his ear in one of the early scenes, and the climactic gang fight is pretty rough, with characters sustaining bloody faces and a couple characters dying from knife wounds (and we see the handle sticking out of one of them briefly before another character pulls it out).

West Side Story
The reception for Spielberg’s West Side Story has been pretty positive, so there’s a good chance it’s just not my cup of tea. However, while I think the makings of the classic could be here, it just doesn’t quite come together, and modern day social politics muddy what otherwise could have been a more sincere musical remake.

– John DiBiase (reviewed: 3/7/22)


Parental Guide: Content Summary

. Sex/Nudity: A guy exits a crane with a girl who is wearing short shorts and midriff. They kiss and he puts his outer shirt on over his tank top; Anybodys is a girl who dresses as a boy and wants to be included with the boys, but they don’t want her around; A cop makes a crass remark about the kids’ mothers getting “knocked up” in order to give birth to them; The girls (like Anita and Maria especially) show some cleavage in their dresses; Anybodys tries to dance with a girl but some of the boys push her away; Many girls at the school dance show some cleavage in their dresses; Some couples are shown kissing, dancing really close, and mildly groping each other at the dance; During a dance number, we see girls dancing and spinning their skirts which rise up and briefly show their panties; We see some pretty passionate kissing between Bernardo and Anita; While at the police station, the Jets guys antagonize Anybodys. She responds by telling the guys to “suck a pickle.” One of the guys refer to her as “the d*ckless wonder” and said they got curious and “pants” her once so they know for sure she’s a girl. She responds by yelling that she isn’t a girl. She also tells them to “go suck a t*tty”; A line from a song mentions his sister wearing a mustache and his brother wearing a dress; Tony and Maria kiss. In the next scene, he springs up in bed without a shirt on and then we see Maria pop up next to him, suggesting they just slept together. He puts on his clothes and she puts on her dress (we only see her bare shoulders); Some guys rough up Anita and she fights back and they start to hold her to the floor as Valentina comes in and breaks it up. She then calls them rapists (but they hadn’t done anything to Anita yet, but it’s obvious what they planned to do)
. Vulgarity/Language: 3 “S” words, 5 “g*dd*mn,” 2 “Chr*st Almighty,” 2 “J-sus,” 1 “J-sus Chr-st,” 3 “h*ll,” 3 “a” words, 2 “Oh my G-d,” 1 “d*ck,” 4 “spick,” 1 “t*tty,” 1 “fr*ggen,” 1 “b*stard” (No “F” words are used directly, but “motherloving” and “Krup you” and other substitutes are used.)
. Alcohol/Drugs: A line from a song has a guy talking about his parents and complains, “all the marijuana they won’t give me a puff;” A character says “Let’s get some beer and some weed and go to the zoo”; We see Valentina drinking.
. Blood/Gore: A kid has blood on his mouth after the gangs fight; We see a nail sticking through a kids ear lobe, with blood all around it and on the side of his head and neck there; We see some blood on another kid’s face; A cop pulls the bloody nail out of the kid’s ear and we briefly see the bloody nail; We see Tony with a bloody lip; After more punching, Tony has blood above his eye and on his lip; Two guys fight each other. One of the boys holds the other down and repeatedly punches him in the face. Their faces are both pretty bloody; A character is stabbed and killed, we see some blood on their clothes. A boy retaliates and kills the attacker with a knife, and there’s some more blood; After a fight, a boy has blood on their face, a swollen eye, and some blood on their clothes; We see blood on many Jets’ faces; Anybodys has some bloody over her eye; A person is shot twice. We see some blood on their clothing and their hand as they die.
. Violence: The Jets and the Sharks attack each other and hit each other and with paint cans, then garbage cans. As some speed away in a vehicle with others pursuing on foot, they drop watermelons out of the truck causing some of the boys to slip and fall; The gangs continue to fight and several teens pull a kid off a fence he’s trying to climb to get away from them. They gang up on him as a cop arrives to break it up (with some punching and pushing); We see a kid with a nail sticking through his ear and a cop pulls it out; A cop slaps a kid; Anybodys tries to dance with a girl but some of the boys push her away; A fight breaks out at the dance with some kids shoving each other; Bernardo shoves Tony who falls to the floor; Anybodys attacks some of the Jets boys and slugs an officer; During a dance number, one of the Jets guys playfully hits one of the other guys on the head with a book. At another point, one slaps a friend twice playfully; A man holds a gun at Riff’s head. Another guy shoves a kid to the floor. Riff leans into the barrel and the gunman gives him the gun instead; Some of the kids run around pretending to shoot each other; Riff and Tony dance for possession of the gun and struggle over it, taking a few swings at each other; The kids ready their chains and rods as they go to fight in a warehouse; A boy punches another boy several times; Two guys fight each other. One of the boys holds the other down and repeatedly punches him in the face; Two guys then break out the knives and take a bunch of swings at each other. One of them falls into the other’s knife. He has a friend pull it out and then he falls over dead. In anger, the friend stabs the attacker, killing him. A big fight then breaks out with rods and chains, punches, etc; We see the two dead bodies lying on the ground in an aerial shot. The both have some blood on their clothes; In the morgue, the sheets on two dead bodies are pulled back and we see their white and discolored faces; A girl repeatedly hits a man’s chest in anger; Anita slaps Maria; Maria shoves Anita; Some gang members move to attack a boy and he pulls a gun out; Some guys rough up Anita and she fights back and they start to hold her to the floor as Valentina comes in and breaks it up. She then calls them rapists (but they hadn’t done anything to Anita yet, but it’s obvious what they planned to do); Anybodys frantically tugs at one of the boys to stop them from walking and he pushes her off; A character is shot twice. They fall to the ground and die; A person points a gun at a couple people and considers shooting them (and suicide), but they do not fire the gun.

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