Musicals seem to be back in fashion again in Hollywood. Just this year alone we’ve got In The Heights, Annette, Dear Evan Hansen, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie… not to mention the Netflix release of Tick, Tick, Boom recently. I have to admit I wasn’t exactly clamoring to see a remake of West Side Story (I’m actually one of the last few people on earth who still haven’t seen the original), but I was curious because it’s directed by Steven Spielberg, a renowned director who has not done a musical before.
I wonder why he decided to do THIS particular one as opposed to a whole bunch of other musicals out there. Well, I read on IMDb that he had been a fan of the music since he was 10 years old and he had always wanted to direct an adaptation for it, so in many ways it’s kind of a personal dream the way Denis Villeneuve had always wanted to make DUNE since he was a teenager.
Even without seeing the original, I knew that the story is inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, that famous forbidden romance between two young people from opposing families. Instead of Italy, this one is set in New York’s Upper West Side in the 1950s and instead of warring families, we’ve got two warring teenage gangs – the Jets and the Sharks. The best part about this film is definitely the glorious visuals. Right from the opening scene where we’re introduced to the Jets, the white gangs made up of teenage boys, are bold and stylish. The actors are such amazing dancers who move fluidly and confidently through the streets, and the set design does a great job depicting the urban life of 50s New York. The Jets is led by Riff (Mike Faist), a willowy punk with a huge chip on his shoulder.
The prime ingredients for a great musicals are definitely the choreography, music and cinematography… and West Side Story has all three. Justin Peck, who started out as a dancer with New York City Ballet, is Tony-award winning choreographer and he does an astounding job here. The dance moves are so fun to watch and had me transfixed the entire time. Another Spielberg longtime collaborator, DP Janusz Kaminski is no stranger to creating beautiful visuals for various genres and he does it again here. I love the way he lights everything and his use of shadows is just awe-inspiring, there are countless ‘one-perfect-shot’ imagery here, but especially THIS one when the Sharks and Jets are meeting to fight in the middle of the night.
Then there’s the absolutely amazing music! The classic songs are definitely the highlight for me… it’s astounding how SO many songs are familiar to me… (I just made a list of top 5 favorites here). Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are music legends and their music truly stand the test of time.
The performances are generally pretty good. The star-crossed lovers are made up of Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) and I appreciate that the two look young enough to pull off being a teenager. I know lots of people have called out Zegler’s performance as Oscar-worthy and she’s even won some critics’ nominations for Best Actress, but I personally think her singing is more captivating than her acting. That’s not to say she’s not a good actress, but I don’t think it’s a stellar enough performance for me if it were a regular, non-singing role.
Still, it’s an impressive feature debut and she is definitely far more charismatic than Elgort. I remember he was quite good in Baby Driver, but Elgort has a rather bland presence despite having a really good singing voice. One can’t talk about him without mentioning the sexual assault allegations, now I don’t subscribe to ‘cancel culture’ that runs rampant in the social media age of today, but I’d rather give the filmmakers/producers the benefit of the doubt that they must not have found sufficient enough reason to recast him. I do think an actor with more charisma would’ve totally rocked the role. Elgort’s Tony hardly makes my heart skip a beat.
For me, the two MVPs of the film are Ariana DeBose as Anita and Rita Moreno as Valentina. I remember in one of the sequence featuring Anita, I turned to my husband and said, ‘this girl is so magnetic!’ I’ve never seen DeBose in anything before but I sure hope she gets more prominent roles. It’s interesting to note as Moreno had played Anita in the original film, and her character plays a huge role here, especially in THAT scene where Anita is trapped in a shop with all the Jets boys. Let’s just say if it weren’t for Valentina, it would’ve been a terrible situation for Anita. I actually watched the Rita Moreno documentary where she talked about filming that scene, and because she is Puerto Rican herself, that scene was extremely difficult for her.
Out of the Sharks, David Alvarez stood out as the brooding Bernardo, he reminds me of young Russell Crowe in the role. Non-binary actress Iris Menas is quite memorable as Anybodys, a former-tomboy character that’s been updated to be a transgender who worships the Jets and wants to be a part of the gang. It’s one of the more inclusive approach of this new adaptation, and I also appreciate that this version is appropriately bilingual with the Puerto Rican speaking Spanish quite often.
Spielberg directed the script written by his longtime collaborator Tony Kushner, who also worked on Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012) together. In many ways, the narrative is actually pretty timely and topical given the immigration theme– the Sharks are Puerto Rican wanting to fit in and be accepted, while the territorial white boys in the Jets feel threatened by their existence and want to maintain status quo. Definitely sounds really familiar in today’s political climate.
One quibble I have is with the ending however. Now, I’m glad that somehow the finale hasn’t been spoiled for me, as I had no idea who would live or die by the end. Yet the finale didn’t really pull my heartstring as I expected. I think I just wasn’t as emotionally involved with the star-crossed lovers, I wasn’t as moved by the ending of say, Moulin Rouge! which is another doomed-love story musical.
In any case, I’m glad I finally saw a West Side Story cinematic adaptation and watching it at a Dolby Cinema was quite a treat for the senses! Those who see this for the first time will likely be swept up by it and fans of the classic would appreciate this version that fixes the racial issues but also honors the beauty of the original. This film further proves that Spielberg’s still got it and he is truly a master filmmaker who can thrive in any genre.
Have you seen the latest WEST SIDE STORY? Let me know what you think!