Steven Spielberg has spent years trying to get a remake of West Side Story off the ground, and I’ve somehow seen this on his IMDB page every time I’m looking up a film that he’s directed which I’m going to see. I actually thought the film was probably never going to happen, and I’m always convinced that the reason why it’s suddenly been commissioned is the financial success of The Greatest Showman, though I’m also surprised it wasn’t shelved again thanks to the cinematic disaster that was Cats (2019). Now, this is Steven Spielberg’s first musical that he’s directed, and he is joined by one of his regular screenplay collaborators, Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplays for Munich and Lincoln. Though I will say, going over the writing choice for this film is not really that necessary; it’s very much the exact same movie. Do not go into this thing thinking Spielberg’s done some bold new direction on West Side Story; in many regards it’s kind of nostalgia-pandering. It’s the same deal as before: an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet set in the West Side of New York with a gang of white New Yorkers taking on a gang of Puerto Rican New Yorkers for control of the poorer regions of the West Side, and in the midst of it we have the budding romance of Tony, best friends with the gang leader of the Jets, and Maria who’s the sister of the gang leader of the Sharks.
Now, my opinion of the original West Side Story is that it’s an okay film but a little too long. Also, it’s kind of ridiculous, though that’s obviously what’s inherent with these kinds of musicals, particularly the ones that have lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim who, since the music is pretty much unchanged this time, does hold a writing credit in this film. The thing is though, the original film came out in 1961 when we could kind of get away with being a little ridiculous—it was a standard to be expected of musicals around this time. We’re quite far off at that point from Hello, Dolly! coming out and completely ruining the genre for years to come. But this film is out in 2021 and it almost can’t get away with this as much, and I think that’s actually because of what Spielberg brings to this version. What Spielberg really brings with this film is his excellent cinematography team and effects team. It’s certainly a very visually appealing movie and he uses it to back up the excellent choreography that’s gone into each of these sequences. Say what you like about films like this but the dancing alone is done by incredibly talented individuals. But he makes the streets look a lot grimier and rundown; he’s really emphasizing that this is a part of New York that is currently being destroyed for gentrification purposes, in a way the original couldn’t quite go with. And it also does a phenomenal job with some excellent sets, not to say that the sets in the ’61 version were bad—they were excellent for the time—but Spielberg has really done an excellent job using innovations in technology to really modernise this classic. The sense of spectacle is probably the biggest stamp of his directorial style that is most present in the film. However, that’s where it also kind of goes a bit wrong—it almost brings out the inherent ridiculousness that this gang of tough guys seem to constantly break up violence by having well-choreographed dance-offs, and that movement does not match that look. And as a result, it almost brings the ridiculousness of it all to the forefront, something you should really be avoiding in a musical.
West Side Story does have Stephen Sondheim music so it doesn’t suffer with what I like to call “Les Mis syndrome”, the sort of thing where the characters sing what could easily be dialogue. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is quite bad for this. If anything, the songs do a pretty good job conveying the scenes in West Side Story but are identifiable enough. I swear if you looked up the song titles for most of Les Misérables you wouldn’t know which point of the film it took place and I bet you can’t even really name a song from that musical right now except ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and ‘One Day More’, whereas when you look at West Side Story, how many songs can you name? ‘I Feel Pretty’, ‘America’, ‘Maria’, ‘There’s A Place Somewhere’—there’s a reason why many of these songs have really stuck. So how do they translate into this film? Well, surprisingly okay, I’d say. One of the smart decisions in the advertising campaign for this film is that not too much of the new versions of the songs were used; the only one I recall was ‘Tonight’, and even then it was used mostly in instrumental form. The one that seems to have received the biggest update from a visual perspective if not from a song perspective is definitely ‘America’, which—sidebar—that song always seemed weird to me because it treats Puerto Rico as if it’s a foreign country when it is an American territory. Puerto Ricans are officially classified as American citizens and this film is incredibly inconsistent on how much it acknowledges that fact. Anyway, there is definitely much more visual flair this time around for that sequence, for example, and that’s really as far as it goes.
I’m pretty sure most of the actors are doing the singing and it’s very clear that they didn’t need too much use of autotuning. You can certainly hear a couple of moments where some notes have been fixed through autotuning but for the most part the songs are actually sung fine. I actually thought the cast was pretty well picked: you’ve got Baby Driver lead Ansel Elgort as Tony and, pretty much debuting, you’ve got Rachel Zegler as Maria. She’s also playing Snow White in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptation and apparently has a role in the upcoming Shazam! film. Man, she’s going places. I actually thought she was a wise casting choice and probably one of the best performances in the film, and I also thought her and Ansel Elgort had excellent chemistry on-screen. Other than that, the cast is actually really good. Particular highlights were Mike Faist as Riff, David Alvarez as Bernado, and Rita Moreno as Valentina. And one of the smart decisions I think in this film was not to fill it with a ton of incredibly recognisable A-listers. No disrespect to the actors in this one but if you don’t watch that much American television and movies you wouldn’t recognise a lot of these actors. For example, I wasn’t too aware of many of them, though I did also recognise Corey Stoll as Lieutenant Schrank, and I’d say on the back of this I really think Ansel Elgort is doing excellent in his career. I’ve never thought of him as an amazing actor though he definitely seems to be shaking off a lot of his association with young adult novel adaptations—he was in Fault in Our Stars as well as the Divergent films, but his recent roles in things like this and Baby Driver really show that he has a lot more range; I’m starting to think his performance is more reflective of the director he’s working with.
That being said though, I do think West Side Story (2021) is a bit nostalgia-pandering. I can’t think of that much reason to emphasize seeing this one outside of the new set pieces and technology; it’s really not giving you much of something you didn’t already have before. They did have an increased emphasis on Spanish dialogue, which I thought was a smart choice to really emphasize that the characters in the white gang are, on pretty much every level, incredibly racist, and they don’t shy away from that in this film especially with the use of some slurs to Hispanic people being used. It fortunately doesn’t go for too much of that either, but you get my point. Other than that, I can’t really think of much that was different. It’s not a scene-for-scene copy like, say, Disney’s Beauty and The Beast film that came out in 2017, but it’s not as if this is something completely different and it hasn’t really emphasized a change for the new elements for a modern audience. I’ll give you a prime example: In The Heights’s original stage show did not put as much emphasis on casual racism in America but the film did decide to put it in due to more exposure of that issue that has come since the time between the stage show and the film’s production. West Side Story doesn’t really have something like that. And again, In The Heights also doesn’t change too much from its stage show production but that didn’t have a widely distributed film version that people had seen and gotten very used to. West Side Story has had that now for 60 years as well as a very dedicated fan base, and I don’t know how this will go down for them. It has had very positive reception on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes but that often can suffer from short-term reactions and doesn’t often reflect a long-term reception to a film in the public consciousness. See the low score of another Steven Spielberg film, Hook, for more of a reflection on that.
Share This Post: