West Side Story (2021)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Composed by Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics by Steven Sondheim
More Info: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3581652/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_1

Table of Contents:

What Is West Side Story?

West Side Story (2021) is a remake of the 1961 classic of the same name, which is itself an adaptation of the 1957 musical of the same name, which is an adaptation of the classic Shakespeare play Romeo and Juliet. One might expect a movie that is so many levels of derivative to just be a rehash of other, better ideas, with nothing new to bring to the table, and in many cases you would probably be right. Modern remakes of classic films tend to fall flat, as do many Broadway-to-big screen adaptations (just look at the train-wreck that was Dear Evan Hansen), so it seems like this movie was doomed to failure from the beginning. However, in a shocking turn of events, not only is Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List) the director of the movie, but it was apparently something of a passion project for him, and not just something studio executives put together to turn a profit. So how is the final product? Does it live up to Steven Spielberg’s expert direction, or does it fall into the trash-pile of vapid, shitty remakes that only exist to make a quick buck off people’s nostalgia? That’s what I’m here to talk about today. But first, let me give a bit of context regarding my take on previous iterations of this story.

West Side Story: The Broadway Musical

West Side Story, for those who don’t know, is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the streets of New York City. It chronicles the story of Tony, the ex-leader of a gang of America-born young men called the Jets, and Maria, the younger sister of the leader of a gang of impoverished Puerto Rican immigrants called the Sharks. The two meet at a dance and instantly hit it off, and when their connection is discovered, it sends the Jets and the Sharks on the direct path of war against one another. The rest of the show chronicles Tony and Maria’s attempts to pursue their budding romance, the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks, and well….if you know the story of Romeo and Juliet, you probably have a decent idea how the story ends. While it’s certainly not a 1 to 1 translation between the play and the musical, the influence is particularly clear there. Other important characters throughout include Riff: Tony’s best friend and the current leader of the Jets, Bernardo: Maria’s older brother and the leader of the Sharks, and Anita: Bernardo’s partner and something of a moral compass for Maria.

Although controversial for its grappling with racism and the depictions of the effects of poverty on The United States’ youth, West Side Story was an enormous hit with both critics and audiences. It had an enormous influence on Musical Theatre, especially in the way it made its spectacular choreography one of the central focuses of the show, but it also had a simply incredible soundtrack, and was recognized for it. Since then, West Side Story has gone on to become a musical theatre classic, and is generally considered to be as influential as it is good. The original production was nominated for — and won — several Tony awards including Best Choreography, and every Broadway revival of the show since then has, at the bare minimum, been nominated for three or four Tony awards.

Now, full disclosure, I have not seen West Side Story on Broadway. I have listened to the soundtrack for the purposes of this review, and it’s excellent, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see the show live. However, it is undeniable that West Side Story is an influential piece of musical theatre that shaped Broadway for decades to come. So how did it fare when adapted for the big screen?

West Side Story (1961)

While I will grudgingly admit that West Side Story’s first adaptation to the big screen is influential, I quite strongly dislike it. To put it quite simply, everything that remains good about it was taken from the Broadway show, and everything that’s bad about it is the people making it putting their feet in their collective mouths and gumming things up in the adaptation process. So for instance, the songs are all excellent, because they’re all lifted from the show. The singers sound good, because they’re all talented people, and the story remains compelling.

Unfortunately, although the singers are talented, I feel like pretty much everyone in this adaptation is mis-cast. Riff looks more like a preppy kid trying to “dress gangster” rather than an actual leader of a gang, Tony can’t really pull off either sides of his character (the sappy romantic and the vicious ex-leader of the Jets), and Maria is played by a white woman wearing skin darkening cosmetics to try and appear “Puerto Rican”…..yeah that hasn’t aged well at all. It’s also not just Maria, it’s every Puerto Rican character in the show. To give an example, one of the actors who played Riff on Broadway was cast in the movie to play Bernardo…..are you fucking kidding me? Now to be fair, I am all for judging things in the context of the time period they were made in, and it is my judgement that this was super fucking racist, even in the context of the early ’60s. It’s not even like the show had a super racially diverse cast, but that’s because characters often don’t play their race (or their gender) in theatre, and even though it didn’t look great at the time, Broadway these days has actors of color portraying white characters, white actors portraying a variety of different non-white characters, men playing women, and women playing men. So it just doesn’t stick out the way the movie does. It’s a different medium, and it plays by different rules.

Another issue I have with the first West Side Story movie is that the cinematography is kind of uninteresting to look at, and I feel like the movie’s musical numbers don’t often integrate into the environments very well. In other words, I consider it to be a very overrated adaptation of a phenomenal musical. Yet another movie that butchers its source material, the only difference this time being that the source material is so profoundly good and well-written that it sometimes overcomes the mediocrity of the movie. I may very well right a full review of the 1961 West Side Story at some point, but that day is not today, because I am far more interested in talking about the 2021 movie, and I think I’ve provided enough context to dig into my thoughts on it. Suffice it to say, I went into this new adaptation with a very positive impression of the stage show, and a rather negative outlook on the first attempt at adapting it to the big screen. So did West Side Story (2021) live up to the stage show? Or does it get to join the original in the overrated shit-heap of history?

West Side Story (2021)

The first thing I noticed when I began watching this film is that the cinematography is fucking impeccable. This is a story containing a lot of complex choreography, and not only does Justin Peck do a fantastic job adapting the original choreography to the big screen, but Spielberg makes every single shot in this damn movie look vibrant and interesting to look at. Even simple pans across the streets of New York are engaging to look at, and this is all accomplished without sacrificing the grimy feeling that this movie is supposed to have. A few highlights in which the choreography and cinematography came together in particularly noteworthy ways include Jet Song, The Dance at the Gym, America, and Gee, Officer Krupke, but I truly cannot overstate how every sequence in this fucking movie is impeccably crafted. Just from a technical standpoint, I think this movie manages to justify its existence better than the 1961 version ever did, and that’s before I get into all the stuff that makes a movie truly good.

West Side Story has a cast that is diverse in both a racial sense, and in the ratio of stars to newcomers. There are some fairly big names attached to this project, such as Ansel Elgort (Tony), Mike Faist (Riff, known for playing Connor Murphy in the original Broadway cast of Dear Evan Hansen), and Rita Moreno (Valentina, played Anita in the 1961 film), but one of its main stars, Rachel Zegler (Maria), is a complete Hollywood unknown, as is the case for several other major cast members. Speaking of Rachel Zegler, she is simply incredible, and I do not say that lightly. This was her first time ever appearing in a movie, and she out-competed over 30,000 other applicants on a completely even playing field in order to get the role, and after seeing her in the movie, I can see why she got it. Not only can this woman sing like few others, but she can act her ass off while doing so. She has to pull off so many different emotional extremes throughout the film, and she moves between them with a rare nuance that brings a lot of resonance to her character. She and Elgort also have fantastic chemistry, and even though their romance has a couple story problems that I’ll touch on later, their dynamic does a pretty damn good job selling me on them as a couple regardless. Speaking of Ansel Elgort, I’ve seen him get a lot of flack on the internet for his performance, but I really don’t see the issue. He has a beautiful voice, he pulls off the incredibly demanding vocal part required of any actor who plays Tony, and he has the acting chops to pull off the wide range of emotions that he has to cycle through as the movie goes on. Of the two, I think that Zegler’s performance is noticeably stronger, but that is in no way a condemnation of Elgort. If I’m being honest, I was sold on him the second he started singing Maria, and he only exceeded my expectations as time went on.

The next two important characters to go over are Riff and Bernardo, and I think both actors do a very good job in their respective roles. Mike Faist has a difficult job: straddling the line between menacing and likable, and he knocks it out of the park. It is obvious why he is a leader, both when he’s being the charismatic figure who the the Jets look up to in Jet Song, and when he’s brutally beating the shit out of people during The Rumble. He’s a tough character, because he’s in the wrong a lot of the time, yet I couldn’t help sympathize with his plight at the same time. Part of that is the chemistry he has with Ansel Elgort, which does a lot to bring Riff’s relationship with Tony to life, which in turn helps to ground his character and keep him feeling real. Bernardo is also good, but unfortunately, David Alvarez is given less to work with in the writing department and this shows in his performance. There’s never a moment when his performance is bad, in fact he does an outstanding job during The Rumble, but I also found his character a bit forgettable at times. This is in no way a critique of Alvarez’s work, but simply a byproduct of a weak spot in the writing.

Finally, there’s Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno. For those who don’t know, Moreno played DeBose’s role in the ’61 adaptation, and the character she plays is an invention for this adaptation that was created specifically for her. Ariana DeBose plays the character of Anita, who is Bernardo’s partner, and acts as a foster mother for Maria. The ideological conflict between Anita and Maria makes up a decent portion of the finale of the movie, and a choice that Anita makes directly (and intentionally) brings about the ending. DeBose has an enormous job on her hands, as she has to convince the audience that she was driven into making the choice she did, and that by the end she both stands by that decision but also feels guilt over it. She’s also a fucking incredible singer, and is given an opportunity to really shine in A Boy Like That / I Have a Love. Moreno plays Valentina, a character who helps to ground Tony in reality from the very beginning. There isn’t a ton to her character, but it’s a very sweet part and I’m glad Spielberg added her in.

The music in the movie is still really good. The orchestration is beautiful, the singers sound fantastic together, and Spielberg absolutely succeeds at bringing together the beautiful composition, lyricism, and choreography onto the big screen. Really, my only complaint music-wise is the song I Feel Pretty, which is not only compositionally boring, but does very little to advance the themes, plots, and character arcs in the movie, and it looks especially weak following Tonight (Quintet) and The Rumble, which are two of the best sequences in the movie. And this right here brings me to my biggest point of conflict in regards to this movie: the plot.

As I’ve mentioned West Side Story was originally a modernized musical retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and it plays heavily into similar themes of destined tragedy and love at first sight. It executes these themes perfectly well, and the actors do a good job portraying their love for one another. My issue here is just that I don’t find that kind of story compelling. It feels as though the romance is driven by external factors, rather than the characters themselves, and I know that that’s the point, but it’s just…..not really my cup of tea.

At the end of the day, West Side Story is a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed. The music is vibrant, engaging, and tightly written. Every cast member does an absolutely incredible job. The choreography and cinematography are both breathtaking. Unfortunately, I still find the narrative to be a bit weak, and it doesn’t explore themes that resonate particularly well with me. Nevertheless, I think it is fair to say that this movie more than does justice to the original Broadway show, and that’s really great to say. I am so incredibly happy that so many quality musical adaptations were released in 2021, and I think that this version of West Side Story will go down in history as the definitive version for the majority of audiences.

West Side Story is well worth renting on Amazon (or streaming on HBOMax, if you prefer), and it’s an absolute must-watch if you’re a fan of musicals, modernized Shakespeare, Steven Spielberg movies, or any combination of the above.

Written on 03/29/2022

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