Chances are, few things in this universe will draw unanimous agreement from People magazine, arts critic Ken Glickman and me.
Here’s one that does: Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” (shown hee) is a triumph, well worth seeing.
Those sources are quite different. The magazine worries about whom Jennifer Aniston is dating; Ken doesn’t. He’s a classical conductor/critic; I’m just a writer who sometimes succumbs to alliteration.
Ken and I did once agree that the Stratford theater summer had one great musical and one bad one. We just didn’t agree on which was which. But now comes a movie most people can savor:
– People’s Tom Gliatto calls “West Side Story” the best movie of 2021, adding that it “moves with swift, vigorous confidence … but never rushes the love story. (It) found just the right balance between the guileless young lovers and the racial strife that engulfs their world.”
– Glickman had doubts about filming a new version of what he considers one of Broadway’s greatest musicals. But his review (glickarts.blogspot.com) raves about the cast, Tony Kushner’s screenplay and Spielberg: “The look of the film is urban and gritty. The actors swagger across the screen like tough, ‘50s, street-gang guys, not like ballet dancers – an improvement over the ‘61 version.”
– I had no doubts. I’ve always considered Spielberg the greatest director; there’s no one I’d more like to see remake a great (but quirky) musical.
Most musicals have flaws. For “West Side Story,” that starts with a plot that requires an overload of bone-headed behavior. (Yes, that’s the fault of “Romeo and Juliet,” which it’s based on. But in four centuries, someone could have improved the plot.)
The theater musical never quite decided if these are fierce gangsters or just eager scamps. But any flaws were instantly covered up by sheer talent – Leonard Bernstein’s brilliant music, Stephen Sondheim’s amazing lyrics, Jerome Robbins’ choreography.
The 1961 movie added more flaws: It cast leads (including a non-Hispanic Maria) whose singing was dubbed. It seemed to think there are no Latinas who can act, no actors who can sing.
Now all of that has been fixed … except, of course, the ending. Society must forever pay for the fact that Will Shakespeare was grumpy.
But the rest is solid. Kushner (“Angels in America”) has written a script that adds depth, especially to Tony. Spielberg has cast if beautifully.
Rachel Zegler – who is half-Colombian and was still a teen-ager when this was filmed – is perfect as Maria. Ansel Elgard – 27 and already known for “Baby Driver” – is fine as Tony. They offer a rich visual contrast (he’s 6-foot-4, she’s 5-foot-2) that accents their different worlds.
Then there’s Ariana DeBose (shown here), who is 30 and half-Puerto Rican (with some African-American roots). Already a streaming star from “The Prom” and the wonderful “Schmigadoon,” she has Anita do it all – singing beautifully, dancing spectacularly and acting with fierce power.
That’s also what Rita Moreno did as Anita in the original movie. Moreno recently turned 90 and is perfect in a key role here, possibly setting up a movie first: – one person winning Academy Awards in two versions of the same film, 60 years apart.
But most of all, award talk should focus on Spielberg. He’s mastered the art of visual storytelling.
Several scenes here are stunning – Tony and Maria at the dance hall and on the fire escape … a “Tonight” montage, with different expectations for the night … a buoyant “I Feel Pretty” … and Moreno’s plaintive solo as things go bad.
Any one of those scenes would help make this a good movie. Combined, they make a great one that opposite souls can savor.