Continuing the countdown of my favorite 2021 movies…
Best Films of 2021
#3 – West Side Story
I’m not a fan of the original West Side Story, something I discovered when watching it as part of my AFI Movie Musicals series in 2020. I don’t know if that made me a harder or easier target for this new take on the source material, but I came out of it convinced I’d seen a new classic.
This movie is such a visual and audio treat from the first bravura shot to the last. Nobody knows how to position and move a camera like Steven Spielberg, and it’s a treat to see him finally try his hand at an epic musical.
During my second viewing, I watched to see how the camera was used in every shot. I was amazed by the way Spielberg uses the environment, shooting reflections in a puddle or a polished floor tile, climbing up balconies, using a shifting clothesline to frame different actors during different parts of a song.
Of course, my issues with the original film weren’t focused on how it was shot. With a couple of notable exceptions, it is not well-acted, and it was famously problematic in terms of the representation of its Puerto Rican characters.
This version threads a needle between the original stage musical and the 1961 film while sounding notes that resonate in 2021. I love the changes made to the script by Tony Kushner, leaning into the themes of gentrification and decay. You feel the desperation of both the white and brown characters. Nobody wants any of them there.
I also love the use of un-subtitled Spanish, bringing an authenticity and inclusivity to the depiction of the Puerto Ricans that goes beyond casting actual Latinos in the roles.
And what a cast Spielberg assembled here! Rachel Zegler, Mike Faist, Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez are all brand-new big screen faces who beautifully embody their roles. And Elgort, dismissed by many for reasons having nothing to do with his work in the film, is a very effective Tony. Oddly, Maria and Tony are the weak link in this story, but these two actors sell their doomed romance.
One of the film’s masterstrokes was creating the character of Valentina for Rita Moreno. Moreno, the best thing by far in the original film, bridges the two generations and sells the idea that the struggle to belong is timeless.
Given one of the film’s signature songs, ‘Somewhere,’ she embodies the broken dreams of not just the star-crossed lovers but the whole world, then and now.
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere
There’s a time for us
Some day a time for us
Time together with time to spare
Time to learn, time to care
We’ll find a new way of living
We’ll find a way of forgiving
There’s a place for us
A time and placе for us
Hold my hand and we’re halfway therе
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
A beautiful film that I would be happy to see win Best Picture.
I remember loving the first film when I saw it on the 1960’s. I agree this was a wonderful reproduction by Spielberg.
Having recently listened to DeBose on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, I found myself even more impressed with Spielberg, who, I hadn’t realized, was reticent for years about whether he should helm the film. His sensitivity to these characters and need to do right by the people for whom this was actually their experience led him to invite them to meet with the cast and share their stories of living in this part of NY at that time. He also had Spanish teachers and dialect coaches at the ready, as even DeBose, whose father is Puerto Rican but was absent from her life, needed to learn and improve her Spanish to represent Anita so beautifully. I’d be happy to see this film win Best Picture (though I’m predicting and rooting for CODA), but I’d be ecstatic if my favorite director took home an Oscar for marrying his cinematic expertise with cultural humility and demonstrating how it can be done.