It’s common knowledge that Steven Spielberg has always wanted to direct a musical. There have been shades of musical theatricality in a few of his films, but West Side Story marks the world’s most accomplished filmmaker’s first true musical. It’s a bold swing to try and remake what is largely considered the best film musical of all time, but if you’re Spielberg, these are the risks you get to take. In terms of showing off his directorial panache, West Side Story is a grand slam. In terms of validating the need for a remake, it’s a mixed bag.
Stage and cinema are different beasts, and one of the pleasures of the former is that there are no takes, no cuts, and short of the intermission, no breaks. The performers are on stage or in the wings for the entirety of the show, a feat which adds to the value of your ticket. When adapting a stage play to the screen, the filmmaker is tasked with finding a way to preserve as much of the live feeling as possible while also ensuring that their final product isn’t just a filmed stage performance. While it is impossible to strike this balance perfectly, for my money West Side Story (1961) and Chicago come closest to pulling it off. Spielberg doesn’t quite reach the level of magic that either of those films find in bridging the gap of two mediums, but he does push the craft of the film musical forward in a lot of ways. There are more than a few shots that find cinema in sequences already stuffed to the gills with showmanship. Where a static camera would do, Spielberg lets his lens dance with the characters, capturing choreography designed for the back row alongside nuanced acting designed for the big screen.
Except for Ansel Elgort, who could have been replaced by literally anyone.
I won’t comment on his assault controversy because I don’t care enough to do the research required to speak on it eloquently, but I can comment on his mixed bag of talents. He was a great fit for Baby Driver, where he was supposed to have a quiet cool, but as Tony, one of WSS’s star-crossed lovers, he makes no impression at all. Since he’s surrounded by a cast of exceptional performers, his lack of personality sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a good thing that he can sing (don’t take this as a green light to go check out his original music — I’d think it was parody if I didn’t know any better).
Across from Elgort is newcomer Rachel Zegler as Maria. This is Zegler’s first role in anything ever, and you’d never know it. She’s a born star whose powerful voice and doe-eyed expression of wonder suit Maria perfectly. The romance which blossoms between she and Tony has always felt rushed (sorry, but love at first sight is something my cynical ass just won’t buy), but Zegler sells it in a way that fits the tone of the flawed material. Also giving excellent work is David Alvarez as Bernardo and Ariana DeBose as Anita — who remains the best character in the whole thing. DeBose stomps all over every scene she’s in, giving one of the best performances of the year, even surpassing what Rita Moreno did when she won the Oscar for playing the same character so many moons ago.
By the way, Moreno is back, now playing Valentina, the updated version of Don, the owner of the drug store who gets to tell the Jets that they’re being assholes. Another performance to note is that of Mike Faist, who plays Riff, and who looks EXACTLY as if John Mulaney and Tilda Swinton had a baby.
There are alterations to the text in the form of song placement and song assignments, but this is standard both for film adaptations and revivals. West Side Story (Broadway) is different than West Side Story (1961) is different than West Side Story (Broadway revival) is different than West Side Story (2021). Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner is responsible for the latest changes, and for the most part they work. It seems the general idea was to elevate the racism/policing/gentrification material while leaving the romance as is. It’s a smart move given our current cultural focuses, and it does bring the intended material to the forefront, but at the end of the day the changes will only be apparent to hardcore fans. I am medium-core.
The dance numbers rock, due to both the excellent choreography and inspired blocking, and the new versions of every song are all perfection. West Side Story adaptations will all live and die by their version of Gee, Officer Krupke, and this version is the best part of the whole flick, so I’m pleased.
I’m also pleased by the incredibly detailed sets and setpieces. They capture the look of the stage while also providing ample opportunity for Spielberg to turn anything — a pile of sawdust, a light post, a garbage heap — into visual flair. Unfortunately, the largely green screened deeper areas of the frame don’t always work. Granted, they do look photoreal, but they also look very much like they don’t share the frame with the tangible elements. Par for the course anymore, so I can’t be too harsh.
Anyway, Spielberg should do more musicals and Brian d’Arcy James should be in more movies.
Directed by Steven Spieberg
Written by Tony Kushner, Arthur Laurents
Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez
Rated PG-13, runtime 156 minutes
Still here? Cool! When I was bored the other day I tried re-writing Gee, Officer Krupke to be about Spielberg. It’s profoundly stupid. Enjoy:
Deeeeeeeeeear kindly Steven Spielberg
Ya gotta understand
You give me all the feels-berg
The best guy in the land
Your movies are all awesome
Except for just a few
What can you not do?
Geeeee filmmaker Spielberg
You got your toes wet
I hope that west side story Is the first of a set
Geeee filmmaker Spielberg
Your musical’s good
Now please don’t use a CG ‘hood
It’s no good it’s no good I wish you understood, just use a set, CG’s no good!