Reel Dad: Rita Moreno documentary celebrates legendary life

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Film Festival / Contributed photo

For anyone who loves the 1961 film “West Side Story,” the musical and dramatic intensity of Rita Moreno remains in our movie memory. The performance that brought her an Oscar feels as fresh and authentic today as it did all those years ago.

Yet there’s more to this remarkable lady than movies she has made, awards on her shelf, or accomplishments detailed in photos around her home. Yes, she is a member of that exclusive club known as EGOT - for artists who win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony - and, yes, she made her film debut more than 70 years ago. But Rita Moreno doesn’t deserve a documentary because of her endurance. As we learn in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” what drives this lady is what she absorbs from life, the good, bad and, at times, very ugly.

From the film’s opening moments, filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera creates an informal tone that makes us feel welcome in Moreno’s home and life. We see the legend decorating her living room for her birthday party (laughing as she observes, “if I was a big star, I’d have a staff doing this”) while explaining the reasons she cherishes this annual celebration of life. As the film follows a conventional recipe of movie clips, commentaries and vintage photos, we begin to learn why peace of mind is so essential to a lady who fought many battles on the road to self-acceptance.

If the ingredients in this film feel familiar, what sets it apart is Moreno herself. The lady so eagerly welcomes us into her home and her soul, it’s as if we have all been friends for years. She never hesitates to admit who she is, where she came from, how difficult it was to get from there to here, and why she has been so determined to complete the trip. Looking back, she makes fun of all the accents she had to use in movies in the early 1950s (because, as she says, “I played women of every ethnic background”) as well as her memories of being quite serious in the movie version of “The King and I” (asking, “what does it mean to kiss in a shadow,” referring to a lyric she sang.) Moreno relives the excitement of “getting a real part” in the landmark 1952 musical, “Singin’ in the Rain,” as well as the personal tragedy of her relationship with Marlon Brando.

“West Side Story” changed her journey and, as she remembers preparing to audition, Moreno knows, without question, who the character of Anita is and how to channel through Anita, this powerhouse called Rita. As remarkable as this milestone, the years that follow “West Side Story” truly define Moreno’s potential as a performer and a person. She continues to fight for roles she knows she is born to play and reinvents herself every few years for new audiences on Broadway and on television, culminating with her explosive turn on the reboot of “One Day at a Time.” But Moreno refuses to take herself too seriously, never trying to be more than she is while celebrating precisely who she has become.

Thank goodness moviemaker Riera so beautifully captures the spirit of this legendary lady, destined to always make us smile.

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” runs 90 minutes. For more information about this year’s Sundance Film Festival, go to sundance.org/festivals .

Summary: Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It

Content: High. The ups and downs of a legendary life on film, television and on stage are beautifully captured in a documentary that searches for the soul of a remarkable lady.

Entertainment: High. Filmmaker Mariem Pérez Riera lovingly conveys what makes Moreno so memorable on stage and screen and so challenged by the changes she has faced.

Message: High. No matter our own journey, we can learn from the authentic way Moreno looks at herself, her priorities, and the relationships that matter in her life.

Relevance: High. Any opportunity to view a legend's life can teach us something about our own.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You will have a lot to discuss after watching this film and, perhaps, taking a fresh look at "West Side Story."