What makes cinema one of the most valuable parts of our culture? On the one hand, it brings us into contact with a wide variety of cultures. On the other hand, it takes us to other times and worlds. When the light goes out, it makes us forget about reality for a while. Cinema makes us dream, laugh or cry – sometimes, all at once. But what would cinema be without the big names? Hardly anyone else is more the godfather of the wonderworld of cinema than Steven Spielberg. After a long break, he is now presenting us with another mega-blockbuster with which he not only introduces a new star, Rachel Zegler but also retells the romance of the West Side Story.
THE ROOTS OF THE WEST SIDE STORY
For a very long time, precisely from the early 30s to the late 70s of the last century, the cinema turned into a musical theater.
Films like Singin ‘in the Rain, An American in Paris, Hello Dolly, and The Wizard of Oz presented the audience with a colorful, happy, and glamorous world. Stars like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Ginger Rogers shaped the picture.
But one musical stood out from the rest. The reason? It dealt specially with current topics such as the clash of cultures, integration, respect, and the real dreams, hopes, and feelings of the youth of that time. With his West Side Story in 1957, Leonard Bernstein, for the first time, abducted the public into the tenements and streets controlled by rival gangs in the Upper West Side in New York.
In these streets, only the strongest can survive. And that’s what the jets think they are because of their white skin. Their boss is the Irish Reef. Opposite him is the boxer Bernado, who leads the Puerto Rican Sharks.
The story quickly reminiscences of the biggest love drama in history, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Because amid this world of gangs, marked by violence and rivalry, a young and immortal love blossoms between Bernado’s sister, the beautiful Puerto Rican Maria, and Riff’s best friend, the Polish Tony.
If there could be a place for the two of them, everything would be so beautiful. But in reality, they live in the middle of the Upper West Side. In this way, pure love, which does not care about conventions, rules, or ancestry, is put to the test. Because of course, the Jets and even not the Sharks can accept this love between the frontlines.
Without question, this incredibly fascinating material had to hit the big screen as quickly as possible. And so, the unforgettable Natalie Wood and the young Richard Beymer enchanted audiences all over the world in the West Side Story 1961 film adaptation.
Then, from the 80s, it was quiet about the musicals in the film industry. Here and there, some directors tried their hand, sometimes more, sometimes less successful, in this genre.
Until, yes, until the great Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling, and the amazing Emma Stone finally catapulted the film musical back into the present day with a big bang and their film La La Land. Other great musicals followed, such as in 2017 “The Greatest Showman” with Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, and Zendaya, directed by Michael Gracey.
STEVEN SPIELBERG’S WEST SIDE STORY
Of course, the greatest director of the past half-century could not escape the magic of this genre. Besides, Spielberg has already mastered even the biggest genre changes in the past.
So, he has surprised us many times in his long career. In that way, he has proven that he is a master of all classes. His repertoire extends to this day across almost all genres, above all, of course, from science fiction and fantasy, through horror and action, to war and history.
Spielberg is now completing his repertoire with the musical West Side Story. In addition, he even fulfilled a childhood dream.
Because in an interview he conducted with Vanity Fair last year, he explained: “West Side Story was actually the first piece of popular music our family ever allowed into the home. I … fell completely in love with it as a kid. “
If Steven Spielberg is really good at something, it is to play with big pictures. And so, the West Side Story 2021 blows us into the cinema seats from the first second and won’t let us out of them until the end.
The images and colors pull us out of the moment into another reality, that of Maria and Tony. And Spielberg has also mastered another thing perfectly, arousing our emotions.
Because of all the thoughts and worries that moved or even burdened us before we started to watch the movie disappear instantly. They give space to our deepest emotions.
Of course, the original score of the West Side Story also contributes to this effect. For this time, Spielberg’s old friend John Williams was not responsible for the score. He merely acted as an advisor. Instead, David Newman arranged Leonard Bernstein’s original score for the film.
If you persuade your boyfriend or girlfriend to watch this unique film with you, even if they are no musical fans at all, they will (not really, hopefully) “hate” you later. Because for days, they and you will not get the music out of your head and heart.
You will wake up in the morning with an “I Feel Pretty” on your lips. Then, on the subway, you will hum “America” and later on while walking through town “Somewhere” and “Maria”. And then, in the evening, it could be that you can’t get Tonight out of your head.
Without any doubt, the arrangement of all songs is simply perfect. Gustavo Dudamel directed the recording of the West Side Story score. Besides, the New York Philharmonic and Los Angeles Philharmonic performed the catchy score.
The music touches you whether you like it or not. It goes deep into the heart, especially during this time of hardship. It warms us, gives us energy, makes us laugh and cry again and again. Do not defend yourself against this roller of emotions. Open up and simply enjoy it.
MARIA (RACHEL ZEGLER) – A NEW STAR IS BORN
Maria is Bernado’s little sister and has not been in New York long. So, the strange rules and conflicts that have become established between the residents of the neighborhood are alien to her.
She doesn’t care either, because she wants to live her life. Maria has a lot of dreams and wants to be happy. She dreams of being loved, but by no means made up. After all, she left her beautiful homeland of Puerto Rico for one reason only, to be free.
Her dreams seem to come true when she meets the handsome Pole Tony. She can’t take her eyes off him and instantly falls in love with the clever boy. She doesn’t mind that he is the best friend of the leader of the Jets, the arch enemies of her brother Bernado. For Maria, only the heart counts, not the skin color or origin.
It’s a matter of fact, Rachel Zegler meets a great legacy in her role as Maria in West Side Story. After all, the best musical stars and the Hollywood star Nathalie Wood, who unfortunately died much too early, previously performed the role of the pretty Puerto Rican.
Nevertheless, it seems as if Leonard Bernstein wrote his song “I Feel Pretty” only for the young American with Colombian-Polish roots. From the first moment of her appearance, we succumb to her charm and smile. There is no chance to escape Rachel’s aura.
The 20-year-old, who also inspires people on YouTube, ensures the most emotional moments in the West Side Story. Because she doesn’t play Maria, she is Maria. Rachel lives the character. She feels and suffers with her. So she gives us the most emotional film moments of this year.
TONY (ANSEL ELGORT)
Tony enjoys his freedom again. Because of a stupid mistake, he spent the past year in prison. Because of his imprisonment, Tony has changed a lot. Hence, he is no longer interested in the fights of the Jets. Instead, he wants to go his own way.
The Puerto Rican Valentina offers him shelter in the basement of her shop. Out of gratitude, he prefers to help the old lady in the shop than go dancing with Riff, the leader of the jets. But when Tony gives in to his buddy’s insistence, his destiny is fulfilled. It’s the moment when he meets the beautiful Maria.
We already know Ansel Elgort from Baby Driver. The young New Yorker has an eventful family story to tell. On his father’s side, he is of Russian Jewish descent. And on his mother’s side, he is of Norwegian, English, and German ancestry. His Norwegian grandmother on his mother’s side helped Jews in World War II and was interned in a concentration camp for this. His mother, Grethe Barret Holby, is a successful theater producer, choreographer, and stage director.
His father is an acclaimed fashion photographer who works for magazines such as Vogue and also publishes his own books. He was it who named his son after the famous nature photographer Ansel Adams.
Of course, these are the best prerequisites for a career in film and on stage. Anyway, in West Side Story, Ansel shows that he isn’t only handsome but has a beautiful voice and great acting talent.
With his gentle manner and cheeky yet cute smile, he contributes very strongly to the atmosphere in West Side Story. From the moment when Tony meets Maria for the first time, Ansel and Rachel Zegler let our hearts melt.
In addition, Ansel’s role in the West Side Story sets a sign for several things. On the one hand, Tony’s story shows that you shouldn’t let yourself be influenced or led astray. It shows that violence and aggression aren’t any solutions. Furthermore, Tony’s story shows, comparable to that of Romeo’s, that it is a romantic ideal to die for one’s beloved. For what greater value does all of our lives know than true, unconditional, and eternal love?
RIFF (MIKE FAIST)
Riff is a superficial, power-hungry rowdy. He thinks he’s the greatest. Although he also knows friendly feelings, his ego knows no boundaries. And so it doesn’t matter to him when he pulls his friends with him into the abyss.
Mike Faist is an American actor and singer who many know from the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen”. For this, he was nominated for the Tony Award as “Best Featured Actor in a Musical”. Together with the cast, he received the Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Musical Performance in a Daytime Program.
BERNADO (DAVID ALVAREZ)
Bernado dreams of a career as a professional boxer. Despite his tough sport, he has a soft heart. And so, he dreams of a big family. Even if, unlike Riff, he knows feelings, his pride does not allow his sister to get involved with one of the Jets. And so he puts his honor before the happiness and love of his sister Maria.
For his role in Billy Elliot the Musical, David Alvarez was named the youngest winner of the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical.
The Canadian with Cuban roots didn’t have to learn to play the hard side of his film character Bernado in the West Side Story. Because he served in the 25th Infantry Division for 2½ years.
David Alvarez didn’t have to learn to dance either. Because, in 2008, the Dance Spirit Magazine listed him as one of the top 10 young ballet dancers to watch. Moreover, he embodies his role as Bernado in a very authentic way.
ANITA (ARIANA DEBOSE)
Bernado’s self-confident friend is the good soul in the house. Anita tries to mediate between the fronts, and, in some ways, she is much stronger than Bernado.
She is proud to live in America and wants to open her own fashion salon. As much as she can, she helps Maria. However, that changes when things take a tragic turn.
Ariana DeBose was born in North Carolina. Nevertheless, she is one of the few in the cast who can actually look back on Puerto Rican roots. While her father is from Puerto Rico, her mother is white.
Prior to West Side Story, Ariana DeBose had huge hits on Broadway, Apple TV+, and Netflix.
Besides, she uses her influence to stand up for the LGBTQ + community. Together with Jo Ellen Pellman, she founded the Unruly Hearts Initiative in 2020.
VALENTINA (RITA MORENO)
The old lady and her candy store have a special status in the district. Doc’s (who ran the store in the original film and musical) widow has the greatest respect from everyone.
Not only do the jets meet in their shop, but also the Sharks. After all, Valentina also has Puerto Rican roots. It is also she who, as a mentor, tries to lead the young Tony on the right path in order to save him from further harm. She manages to do this until she has shocking news to deliver.
Rita Moreno isn’t just a Puerto Rican, born in Humacao. She also played the role of Anita in the 1961 film original of West Side Story.
It’s unbelievable how expressive the 89-year-old actress still has. She plays Valentina with so much emotion that we’d love to hug her.
There is no question that she can act. After all, Rita Moreno is one of the few artists who have received the four most important annual American entertainment awards, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony, and an Oscar.
Moreno is also one of the 24 talents who achieved the so-called Triple Crown of Acting. Her return to the West Side Story is an extremely emotional tribute to Rita Moreno as well as the original.
A HOMAGE TO THE WEST SIDE STORY – THE RETURNEES
In addition to her, a few others returned from the original film or the musical. Andréa Burns played Maria on the West Side Story European tour from 1992 to 1993. In West Side Story 2021, she appears as Fausta.
Three of the jets from the West Side Story original from 1961, Harvey Evans, Bert Michaels, and David Bean, appear as extras now.
THE CONCLUSION ABOUT WEST SIDE STORY 2021
Just as Leonard Bernstein’s musical up to the famous balcony scene was an homage to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story 2021 is a homage to Bernstein’s original and the first film adaptation from 1961.
With big pictures as well as touching on all levels, Spielberg and the cast take us on an almost 160-minute journey to New York in the 50s. Fortunately, the cult director decided not to experiment with the original characters. Why should he? Because not much has changed in the past 60 years.
Although this should be a thing of the past long ago, people of all different skin colors, origins, religions, and attitudes still experience discrimination and hatred all over the world.
The film also shows how destructive hatred is and that, in the end, it only creates suffering for everyone. The West Side Story also shows that love is so much more beautiful than anything else – even beyond death.
Spielberg once again created a real blockbuster. A film that you must see, whether you are a fan of musicals or not. Even the coldest heart melts away with Rachel Zelger’s performance and the soundtrack. We hope the young actress has a good mail server. Certainly, thousands of fans will send love letters or emails to her.
The dance scenes are so perfectly choreographed that they take your breath away. And the vivid pictures don’t make us look left or right. We can’t stop watching what is happening on the screen.
Despite the long-running time, the film has no length. Everything is important, in one way or another. The only point of criticism may be the theatrics. It is typically for a musical and will, therefore, also delight all lovers of this genre. Nevertheless, a film also aims at conventional viewers. For those, some scenes might seem exaggerated.
However, those who accept these scenes will be rewarded with a terrific film epic that will set another milestone in the history of cinema. And so we come back to the beginning. Is there anything better than enjoying such a moving story on the big screen for a few hours, perhaps with your loved one by your side?
Isn’t it nice, by visiting the cinema, to give thanks and respect to the wonderful artists who give us these unforgettable pictures and stories with their passion, heart, and love? Moreover, isn’t it nice to support them in this way?
The cinema is an essential part of our culture. And Steven Spielberg and his latest work West Side Story are an essential part of cinema. Therefore, we give exhilarated, loving, and vivid 9 points.
Text: Marco Kokkot
Pictures: © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.
All Rights Reserved.