West Side Story
~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp ~
A pattern has been established. Every sixty years, there is a new movie version of the classic American musical stage play, West Side Story. The 1961 movie version was a smash hit, winning eleven Oscars, and starring the late Natalie Wood as Maria. It remains a classic, landmark film sixty years later. The 2021 movie version of West Side Story uses all the modern-day film techniques that didn’t exist in 1961, while retaining the flavor and the spirit of the original stage play. The next version of West Side Story will be in 2081. We’ll be watching for it.
Almost every person in the world knows that West Side Story is a retelling of William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. The star-crossed lovers here, though, are not named Romeo and Juliet, but Tony and Maria. Tony is a “white” boy of Polish descent and Maria a “brown” girl from Puerto Rico. (Right away we see there is going to be a problem.) Tony has been in prison for almost killing another boy in a fight. He works, and lives, in a drug store owned by a kind elderly woman named Valentina (played by Rita Moreno, who won a Supporting-Actress Oscar for the 1961 film version). Maria works as a cleaning woman in Gimbel’s department store. “I’m poor,” Maria tells Tony. “I’m poorer,” he says.
The story is set, of course, in New York City in 1957, giving the entire movie a retro look and feel. On the “West Side” of the city, where many Puerto Rican immigrants live, whole sections are being demolished to make way for new buildings. Most of the outdoor scenes are set against piles of rubble.
The young Puerto Rican men in the neighborhood have a gang called the Sharks. The young Anglo men have their own gang called the Jets. The Sharks and the Jets despise each other and are engaged in turf warfare. Each gang wants to be the dominant gang in the neighborhood. This is not going to end well.
Of the lovers Tony and Maria, Tony is a Jet. Maria, while not a member of the rival gang herself, is close to the gang because her intense brother, Bernardo, is the leader of the gang. Bernardo is appalled that Maria, his sister, is cavorting with a member of the Jets. It brings out his killer instinct. The rival gangs are planning a big “rumble” to resolve the issue. They have weapons and, more importantly, high levels of testosterone.
Tony, during one of his romantic interludes with Maria, tells her not to worry. As a member in good standing of the Jets, he can reason with his fellow gang members and persuade them not to fight the Sharks. The year he has spent in prison has made him into something of a pacifist. When the two gangs come face to face in the “salt shed” to fight it out, however, his efforts to bring about “peace” are ineffective. The inevitable consequence is tragedy.
There are many fine moments in West Side Story, some exuberant dance numbers and beautiful, though familiar, music. The whole thing is beautiful to look at. Ansel Elgort as Tony and Rachel Zegler as Maria are sincere and believable. There is lots to like in this remake of West Side Story. If you don’t see anything here to like, then it probably isn’t your kind of movie.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp