December 10th, 2021
MOVIE: WEST SIDE STORY
STARRING: ANSEL ELGORT, RACHEL ZEGLER, ARIANA DEBOSE, DAVID ALVAREZ, RITA MORENO, MIKE FAIST
DIRECTED BY: STEVEN SPIELBERG
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 STARS (Out of 4)
The pressure was instantly high. Steven Spielberg, the legendary director, was set to take a shot at arguably the greatest musical of all time- West Side Story. What comes in the baggage is multiple Oscars won- including Best Picture, multiple Tony Awards from Broadway, the lyrics of the late-great Stephen Sondheim, the composing of Leonard Bernstein, and the rest of the weight that has soaked into a musical from 1961. It’s a big risk and for me, it was news that both surprised me, and scared me. I’m a massive fan of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s production of the Sharks vs. the Jets, rival gangs in New York city, fighting for turf, with two star crossed lovers caught in the middle. The music, the sights, all the sounds of the film were ingrained into me by my mother, often playing her vinyl copy of the soundtrack, and giving me chills for the spectacle of it all. And now, here we are, 60-years later, and with a delicate, nostalgic, and fresh touch from Mr. Spielberg, this West Side Story found a way to win me over. Beaming with beautiful colors, elaborate sets, and that sweet sounding music, West Side Story is a triumph against the odds.
The narrative itself- the screenplay written by Tony Kushner- is close to the 1961 version, with minor tweaks in characters, song order, and which characters sing the songs. The Jets are led by Riff (Mike Faist), followed by the collection of delinquent white guys with slick hair, sticking around as New York is being torn down. A change is coming, but the Jets won’t leave without a fight. Riff’s best friend is Tony (Ansel Elgort), an old member of the crew, looking to change his old ways. He served time for trying to prove his toughness, now he works at Doc’s Drugstore for Valentina (Rita Moreno), and he wants a better life. The new gang is the Sharks, a multitude of hispanic men, led by Bernardo (David Alvarez). He is the brother of Maria (Rachel Zegler), protective of her, and his best girl Anita (Ariana DeBose). When the rival gangs confront each other at a dance, it’s there when Tony and Maria fall in love, and the tale of lovers, mixed with enemies in the concrete jungle takes hold. It’s all there, the costumes, great music, the Spielberg touch, and a grand musical stage.
The negatives of this West Side Story lies in two factors: 1) Ansel Elgort is the elephant in the room. The actor does a fine job as Tony, with a voice that works well, although he seems to be trying too hard. The problem is that he somewhat lacks charisma, while also having his own off-set controversies, forcing a lot of critics to act as if he’s not even there. He’s there, a major part, he’s fine, but I question how a movie can fully be great when the lead is this dry? And 2) I don’t think this West Side Story answers the question of “did it need to exist?” The 1961 production is what I consider perfection, the gold standard of movie musicals, with a charismatic cast, and impeccable choreography. This West Side Story does suffer from moments that feel like a copy, not enhancing what was done in the original, but nesting right below it. It’s not that Spielberg is doing what Jon Favreau did with The Lion King, but when you’re as big of a fan of the original as I am, you notice that he’s not doing it better than before.
What does work is a pair of powerful performances from newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria and Ariana DeBose. The former is an absolute vision, with the voice of an angel, and doing her own singing to boot. Her delivery in “I Feel Pretty” is adorable and more elaborate than before. Her performance is just about everything in this West Side Story, and although this is her first movie, it’s impossible not to see a major movie career in the future. DeBose is nicely stepping into the shoes of Rita Moreno as Anita, the character in the middle of Bernardo’s hatred for Tony, and Maria’s love for him. DeBose is not playing Anita the same way Moreno did, a welcome change, with a new interpretation, brighter smiles, different footwork, and an explosive third act throwing her into the Best Supporting Oscar mix. She puts her stamp on that probability with her performance of “A Boy Like That”.
And then there is the stellar work of Spielberg, making his first musical, and making it look like a veteran of the genre. The set designs are impeccable and Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski are not afraid to pull the camera back, showing us the dancers feet, the scale of the neighborhood, and stylishly letting the camera waltz around. At the end, this West Side Story is more current, brighter in visual spots, darker in the dour moments, and reviving the musical for a new audience. Even after all this time, I am amazed at how Steven Spielberg can surprise us, even when you know he is one of the greatest, he finds a youthful way of taking a big swing. The great songs- “Maria”, “One Hand, One Heart”, and “Something’s Coming” all sound amazing- as usual. I may not think this West Side Story is better than the original, but I will say that I was proud of what it represented. It’s beautiful to be alive and see West Side Story on the big screen. It’s another big hit from Steven Spielberg. Probably shouldn’t doubt him ever again.
WEST SIDE STORY IS PLAYING IN THEATERS DECEMBER 10TH, 2021
Written by: Leo Brady