“West Side Story (2021) ” Digital Review: Standout Documentary Bonus Feature Sings Beautifully
Some consider “West Side Story” the greatest musical of all time. So recreating it for a contemporary audience wouldn’t be easy as just finding a great director, writer, producer, choreographer, composer, and cast. Nevertheless, there’s an indescribable attachment that fans of the original have to the beloved classic. So whether it’s on stage or big screen, something like West Side Story deserves a performative treatment because it speaks to the times that we live in now. And director Steven Spielberg’s take does that so well as an homage to the original and a love letter to musical theater.
But for a remake, there needed to be more than just recreating memorable scenes with a bigger budget. So Steven Spielberg expanded upon the hybrid of cinema and theater by injecting more social commentary and representation into his vision of “West Side Story.” Doing so gave the musical something new and something that would set itself apart from the Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise-directed film. But this review won’t be so much about the film itself. Instead, it will look at the bonus features that come with it. And there’s a lot to look forward to, especially if you are a fan of the original and the steps Spielberg took to modernize the film for new audiences of the current generation.
While you can expect to see bonus features like the individual songs and “Discover” – which looks at the early inspiration for Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story,” the true heart of the bonus features lie in “The Stories of West Side Story.” The full-length documentary feature looks at the production of the big-budget film adaptation from conception and casting to filming and post. Of course, it also looks at the music and dance choreography, both of which play a vital role in the film’s storytelling.
It is more or less an extended version of the “Something’s Coming: West Side Story” special that aired on ABC during the early days of the film’s original theatrical release. But with “The Stories of West Side Story,” we get to see more of individual chapters, phases of filming, and constructions of each of the acts and songs like the cold snap-filled opening, the Sharks and Jets rivalry, and America. Additionally, the doc gives us a behind-the-scenes look at “Somewhere,” which revisits Academy Award-winning actor Rita Moreno’s return to “West Side Story” both as a new character and executive producer. The new film honors Moreno’s legacy through Ariana DeBoise’s outstanding performance as Antia and gives the actor a role to play. But it wouldn’t be just any cameo role. Instead, she would play Valentina, the business owner of a local pharmacy – a part reconceived and expanded version of the original character Doc, who serves as a mentor to the younger characters.
In that same chapter, Spielberg talks about why he gave the executive producer title to Moreno, who would be more than just a legacy figure but one that would serve a managerial role to the younger castmates. “Because she’s has lived and breathed West Side Story,” producer Kristie Macosko said.
Of course, none of this would even be possible without the genius mind of Stephen Sondheim. The man who is credited for reinventing the American musical wrote the lyrics for the original songs is dedicated in the final chapter titled “Tribute.” In the closing minutes, the lyricist talks about how Oscar Hammerstein approached him to do “West Side Story,” which he intended to be a more contemporary take on Romeo and Juliet. He says they never intended to change the theater and that they didn’t, but it was a unique piece that was “a great example of content dictating form.”
Despite “West Side Story’s” lackluster box office performance, there are standout performances that deserve your attention. DeBoise’s soaring performance as Antia instantly captures your heart and never lets go. The actor knew the stakes and the importance of the reenvisioning of the film and original musical. And Zegler has nowhere else to go up.
Of course, bonus features vary by product, and since we got the digital version, we can only critique the available features. Still, here’s some of what you can expect to see:
The Stories of West Side Story
Opening – Director Steven Spielberg begins the journey of one of his career goals – to direct his own cinematic version of the iconic musical. Doing so means he will embrace enormous challenges.
Prologue – From the iconic finger snaps to the complex choreography, we are introduced to the film’s opening scene and explore its setting. We begin to see Spielberg’s vision take shape.
Sharks & Jets – Meet the actors who play the Sharks and the Jets. Go behind the scenes of “La Borinqueña,” the song of the Puerto Rican Revolution, which was added into this vision of the story. Discover the deeper meaning of “Jet Song.”
Dance At The Gym – Mambo your way through “The Dance At The Gym” and Justin Peck’s choreography, as it leads to the pivotal moment when Tony and Maria meet for the first time.
The Romance – Explore the budding romance of Tony and Maria with the songs “Maria” and “Tonight” as Rachel Zegler (Maria) and Ansel Elgort (Tony) talk about the casting process, and what led them to this career-defining film.
America – During a sweltering New York heat wave, the cast and crew take the production to the streets for one of the biggest dance numbers in the film, “America,” featuring Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita.
Gee, Officer Krupke – Spielberg and the Jets make “Gee, Officer Krupke” their own through a new setting, vocal direction and choreography, while they explore the meaning of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. Get to know Iris Menas (Anybodys) and the significance of their role.
Cool – During the first week of production, Spielberg and the cast nervously jump into filming on the elaborate and challenging set of the musical number “Cool.”
From Quintet to The Rumble – Spielberg and his team navigate the intertwining scenes of “The Quintet” and “The Rumble.” Once there, they take a scene that is traditionally stylishly choreographed, and instead bring a more visceral authenticity to the fight between the two gangs.
I Feel Pretty – Screenwriter Tony Kushner sheds new light on “I Feel Pretty.” We see how, in Spielberg’s film, the beloved song by lyricist Stephen Sondheim is given new vision, as it is set and performed within Gimbel’s department store.
Somewhere – Hollywood Legend Rita Moreno, who won acclaim for playing Anita in the 1961 film, returns as Valentina, a shopkeeper’s widow, as well as an executive producer. She brings extraordinary experience and emotion to the film and sings the song “Somewhere.”
Finale – In a moving testament to the talented cast and crew of WEST SIDE STORY, Spielberg reluctantly wraps “one of the best filmmaking experiences” of his career.
Tribute – The late Stephen Sondheim reflects on his career and experience making WEST SIDE STORY in this dedication to the esteemed lyricist.
Go directly to your favorite musical numbers from WEST SIDE STORY.
The Dance At The Gym
Balcony Scene (Tonight)
Gee, Officer Krupke
One Hand, One Heart
I Feel Pretty
A Boy Like That/I Have A Love
“West Side Story” is available on Blu-ray, 4K, and Digital today.