Film Review: WEST SIDE STORY (2021)
Note: I will be spoiling most of the main plot points of this film, and by extension the 1961 film and the original musical. If you are not familiar with any of these, consider this a warning. My discussion will also include brief mentions of sexual assault within and outside the fiction of the narrative.
Two teen gangs, both alike in dignity,
In 50s New York where we lay our scene,
From hormonal grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the friend groups of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed lovers don’t take their life (but one still dies, so that’s something)
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their nonsense bury their best friends’ strife.
The eye-rolling passage of their death-marked love,
And the continuance of the more interesting rage,
Which, but some bland guy’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two and a half hours’ traffic onscreen from the stage;
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What the last movie got wrong, Spielberg’s toil shall strive to mend.
I don’t know if we’re in a golden age of movie musicals, but we sure are in an age. The revival of this genre dates back to the early 2000s with Moulin Rouge and Chicago, but the movie musical — and to some extent, the popularity of musicals in general — underwent a massive explosion in the mid-2010s. Frozen brought the ubiquity of the animated musical back in full force after about a decade of limited offerings. Younger theater fans used the power of music streaming and social media to make Broadway shows like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen into phenomena that transcended the theater community. We began to get original movie musicals like La La Land and The Greatest Showman, both of which were smash hits. On the small screen, Fox and NBC aired live performances of classic musicals like Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent. We even got a Mamma Mia sequel, of all things.
But I suspect this era is not fated to last for much longer. The gradual decline of the movie musical is the result of a few factors. The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to the box office returns of movies in general, and this coincided with a growing demand for professionally shot recordings of stage shows rather than film adaptations. You can just go on Disney Plus and watch Hamilton in HD with the original Broadway cast, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. With Broadway beginning to change its tune on pro-shots, film adaptations may become less relevant in the coming years.
Of course, some may say that the movie musical was already dealt a fatal blow in late 2019 by the film adaptation of Cats, a catastrophic (heh) failure on every level imaginable. My response to this is that it might take us a few more years to see how much damage that film really inflicted. All the movie musicals scheduled for 2020 got delayed anyway, so we can’t know how they would have been received commercially in the wake of Cats. That said, Cats is not the sole red flag that this genre may be dying.
2021 was both a good and a bad year for movie musicals. It saw the premiere of the highly anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In The Heights, as well as the Dear Evan Hansen movie. But both films underperformed at the box office, and the latter was panned by critics. Not a good look. But we aren’t done with 2021 yet, and neither is the movie musical genre. There’s one major release remaining, and with theaters opening up again, this could be the film that determines whether movie musicals still have enough buzz to survive amidst changing trends.
That movie, of course, is Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story.
The Plot: New York, 1957. In the rough neighborhood of the Upper West Side, two gangs of teenage delinquents fight an ongoing war for territory. The Jets, white Americans descended from Eastern European immigrants, are led by the charismatic and fiery Riff (Mike Faist). The Sharks, newly arrived from Puerto Rico, are led by the equally hotheaded Bernardo (David Alvarez). The two groups meet at a local dance to plan one last “rumble” to decide once and for all which side rules the neighborhood. But at that same dance, an unlikely romance blooms between a former Jet named Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Bernardo’s sister Maria (Rachel Zegler). With the rumble approaching, Tony and Maria look for a way to stop the gang violence so they can be together. But their plan ends in disaster for Riff, Bernardo, Maria’s friend Anita (Ariana DeBose) and many others. This forbidden love may be strong enough to survive all manner of hardships, but will it be enough to finally end the hate and bloodshed between the Jets and Sharks?
The original stage version of West Side Story was a groundbreaking musical when it first premiered in 1957. The iconic choreography by Jerome Robbins marked an early attempt at using dance to help tell and advance a show’s narrative. The songs were an instant hit thanks to the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of future Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. The book by Arthur Laurents, with its focus on contemporary youth and social issues, proved to be darker and grittier than most Broadway shows at the time. I think it straddles the line between what Broadway musicals traditionally were in the 40s and 50s and what they would evolve into in the 60s and 70s. It was big, and a big-screen version was inevitable. The 1961 film directed by Robert Wise netted ten Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor/Actress. It remains iconic to this day, perhaps more so than the stage version.
But after sixty years, there are elements of that first film that have not aged well. Some of the acting is overwrought in that late 50s/early 60s way, and you get some unintentional humor from some of the altered song lyrics (i.e. “I feel pretty and witty and gay”). The singing is mostly dubbed, as musicals of that time often were (this was before it became common to actually cast Broadway performers in musical films). But the most damning element of the film from a modern perspective is the fact that the Sharks are largely portrayed by white actors in brownface. Even Rita Moreno, the one cast member who actually was Latina, had her skin darkened to play Anita. Normal at the time, perhaps, but off-putting to 21st-century viewers. My point is, the 1961 film is not some untouchable sacred cow. There is room for someone else to try and adapt this material again.
Enter Steven Spielberg — I’m sure I don’t need to remind you what his credentials as a filmmaker are. This is a real passion project for the legendary director: he’s loved the original musical since childhood, and he’s been trying for years to make a new film adaptation. His West Side Story is not, as you might assume, intended as a remake of the 1961 film. If anything, it’s intended to undo the changes made by that film. The song lyrics and song order have been partially restored to their original versions, bringing the material closer to how it’s played onstage. Spielberg also made a point of only auditioning Latino actors for the Sharks, ensuring a more authentic depiction of the non-white characters. And the cast is almost entirely made up of performers fresh from Broadway or possessing some musical theater experience. Emphasis on the “almost” — we’re going to put a pin in that.
So, we’ve got one of the most famous directors of all time with a new take on one of the most beloved musicals of all time. It doesn’t have a currently running stage version to compete with, either (the ill-fated 2020 revival of the musical was plagued by controversies and technical problems until it was finally mercy-killed by the pandemic). This all sounds like a good idea so far, at least on paper.
You’d think that I would go nuts for something like West Side Story. I’m a former theater kid, I love Shakespeare, I love musicals, this should be right up my alley. But this show has a fundamental flaw that I think makes it difficult to engage with. To be blunt, the main plot of West Side Story is the least interesting thing it has to offer. When I say that Tony and Maria deserve each other, I mean it as an insult. They are flat archetypes with little characterization besides their mutual attraction, and that’s when the characters are played well. When played badly, they can become vapid idiots who are merely boring in the first half of the story and wholly unlikable in the second. This is unfortunately the case in the 1961 film: crucify me if you want, but I cannot stand Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood in that movie. Awful casting. The supporting characters of Anita, Riff and Bernardo all have better songs, better scenes and more interesting personalities, making you wish the show was about them instead. But Anita’s plot is mostly sidelined, while Bernardo and Riff don’t even survive Act One.
And then there’s the story itself. I don’t dislike this musical because it’s an explicit retelling of Romeo & Juliet, that’s not a problem. The problem is that I don’t think it’s a very good retelling. Some of its changes are effective, but some of them make the story worse. Giving Tybalt/Bernardo a closer relationship to Juliet/Maria, for example, makes it a much harder pill to swallow when Maria reaffirms her love for Tony after he kills Bernardo. This guy knifed her brother to death a couple of hours earlier, and she sleeps with him. You almost don’t want them to end up together, which makes Tony’s supposed-to-be-tragic death at the end of the musical fall flat.
You can’t really fix these problems, because they’re baked into the fabric of the show. Performances and adaptations can either minimize said problems or magnify them. Which leads to the central question: what does Spielberg’s movie do?
In the opening minutes of West Side Story, it is firmly established that this is not the sanitized 60s musical you remember. Spielberg opens on a long, winding shot of the grimy New York slums as they’re demolished to make way for the construction of Lincoln Center. It’s a sight that feels almost post-apocalyptic. When the Jets and Sharks get into a fight after chasing each other around, it’s not stylized dancing: it’s a real, violent brawl. Spielberg even adds the gruesome image of a long nail shoved through a young Jet’s bloodied earlobe. It’s shocking, and intentionally so.
The film’s all-new script, written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner, digs up the grittiness that has always been present in this story and puts it on display, giving us a more somber and nuanced at these characters and the world they inhabit. The Jets, feeling cornered and powerless in the face of gentrification, lash out at the Puerto Rican community that they feel is encroaching in their territory. The Sharks refuse to take this racist bullying lying down, and through their equally vicious attacks, they assert that they also have the right to exist in America. Part of the tragedy now comes from how both gangs fail to see that they are similarly disenfranchised, that they have more in common with each other than either of them do with the authority destroying their neighborhood. Said authority is personified in the minor characters of Lt. Schrank and Officer Krupke, who tell both gangs to their faces that they’re all going to be swept away by the wrecking ball soon.
In a world that feels this grim and apathetic to your existence, bursting into song becomes an act of rebellion.
While Spielberg has directed musical numbers before, this is his first time directing a full musical. And it honestly makes me wish that he wasn’t just now taking on this genre, because he excels at bringing these songs to life. The traditional theory behind almost every musical is that the characters sing when spoken dialogue is no longer enough to convey their feelings. Spielberg understands this, and he adds an additional layer to that premise as well. A lot of the characters in this film feel like they’re singing out of a fierce desire for the world to hear their voice and acknowledge their existence. This is especially true in the case of big ensemble numbers like “America,” which literally spills out into the street and stops traffic. The musical sequences glow with color, vivacity and sincerity that often contrasts with the overall bleakness of the setting. That’s not to say the songs are divorced from the environment around them: quite the opposite, in fact, as most of the numbers involve a lot of interaction with sets and props. Maria dances through the displays in a high-end department store while singing “I Feel Pretty,” and the Jets tear apart a police station while airing out their grievances with law enforcement in the song “Gee, Officer Krupke.” One tension-filled number is performed on a dilapidated dock, with the dancers skillfully leaping across gaping holes in the planks.
Of course, part of the credit must also go to the incredible cast that’s been assembled here. By primarily casting actors with musical theater experience, the film offers us a showcase of rising talent and ensures that its cast members are up to the challenge of performing this material. Mike Faist and David Alvarez are electric as Riff and Bernardo, commanding your attention whenever they’re onscreen as they add new depth to these characters. When it comes time for them to exit the story in violent and dramatic fashion, you want the tragedy to be avoided if only because the movie loses two of its best players at that point. Ariana DeBose stands out as Anita, playing the role that Rita Moreno won an Oscar for back in 1961, and it’s not out of the question that DeBose might repeat her predecessor’s success. She effortlessly captures the tragic story arc of a woman whose joy and optimism are beaten out of her by the loss and bigotry she endures. She goes from singing about how she loves living in America to screaming that she is not American but Puerto Rican — in unsubtitled Spanish, no less. It’s a moment that’s both tragic and cathartic, coming on the heels of the infamous scene where the Jets attempt to gang-rape Anita. Rita Moreno herself also has a small but effective role as Tony’s employer, one of the few sympathetic authority figures in the film.
But the most scrutiny is undoubtedly on Rachel Zegler, who is making her film debut in the role of Maria. Despite being a newcomer, Zegler never seems overshadowed by her more established castmates. She brings a charm, elegance and strength to Maria that makes it easy to like and sympathize with the character. You laugh when she has a cute moment of physical comedy, but you also feel her heartbreak over the losses she endures, especially in the final scene when she lashes out at the Sharks and Jets while brandishing the pistol that’s just been used to kill Tony. And crucially, Zegler’s performance makes Maria’s forgiveness of Tony after Bernardo’s death a bit easier to accept. She plays the character as being super emotionally vulnerable in that moment and desperate not to lose the other important man in her life while still reeling from the loss of her brother. It’s still a bit much to ask us to believe that she would drop everything to run off with this guy she’s known for thirty-six hours. But I do believe that she’s in love with Tony, even if I can’t understand why. Especially when it’s this Tony.
I gotta talk about Ansel Elgort now, don’t I? I can’t stall anymore? Crap.
Okay. Let’s just address the giant horrible elephant in the room and get this over with. Yes, the sexual assault allegations against Elgort were made after the film completed shooting. Yes, he has denied said allegations. Yes, the general moviegoing public is not going to know or care about this sort of thing. But when you know about the allegations, a lot of Tony’s behavior toward Maria stops feeling romantic and starts feeling more sinister. Especially when you know that most of the women who came forward with allegations were underage at the time of the events described, as was Rachel Zegler when she was cast in the film (though she was 18 during filming). This all adds up to the Tony/Maria romance having an element of danger that’s not supposed to be there. You can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable watching Elgort leer at Zegler as he climbs up that fire escape against her express wishes. It’s not helped by the fact that Maria is written to be more hesitant about the relationship than Tony, making it feel like she’s not that into him for the first half of the film.
But we should also be trying to judge Elgort’s acting on its own merits, at least in the interest of fairness. So if we set aside any troubling real-life context, does his performance as Tony work for the film?
Elgort isn’t the only cast member who does not come from a musical theater background, but he is the only non-musical cast member who is still required to sing and dance. And when you put him next to all these Broadway folks, you can tell just how much he’s out of his element. He’s not a terrible singer or dancer, but he’s not great, either. There’s a flatness and harshness to his singing that the other actors don’t possess. But above all, he simply doesn’t have the naivete and youthfulness that the character of Tony requires, and there’s some unintentional humor in watching him try to pull it off. It gets especially bad when he’s in a scene with Mike Faist, who’s acting circles around him the whole time.
Tony isn’t super well written to begin with, which I think is something Spielberg and Kushner are aware of. Part of the changes in the new script involve a more developed backstory for Tony that tries to foreshadow/explain his killing of Bernardo. This Tony, we are told, spent a year in prison after almost punching another gang member to death in a fight. It may add some additional tragedy to the character, but I think it’s ultimately unnecessary. We don’t need a longer justification for why Tony kills Bernardo, just as we don’t need one for why Romeo kills Tybalt. The explanation is in the scene itself, with the killing of Riff/Mercutio. Overall the new film fails to overcome the problems that make Tony the least interesting character in the show.
But here’s the thing: West Side Story can survive in spite of a weak Tony. It can also survive (albeit to a lesser extent) with a weak Maria, although the new film avoids that problem. I think the strengths of this show, the reason people keep coming back to it, lie in its side characters and its overall worldbuilding. And the movie gets that. It gives greater focus to the story and character elements that worked already, it adds more complexity to them, and it finds the things that help this 1950s musical resonate with a 2020s audience. Prejudice, gentrification, the struggle of feeling like an outsider in the place you call home — none of these things have gone away, and the film challenges you to think about them. One strong creative choice that Spielberg makes is not providing English subtitles for the Sharks’ Spanish dialogue, of which there is a good deal. It’s essentially asking the non-Spanish-speaking viewers to connect with and understand these characters despite the presence of a language barrier, and it works. You don’t need to have every word translated to understand what the characters are saying, because the actors’ tones and expressions bridge the gap. What you’re watching feels authentic and engaging in a bold way, and it helps you get a glimpse of how the original stage production might have affected audiences when it first premiered.
The new West Side Story arrives at an auspicious time, near the 60th anniversary of the original film. More tragically, it arrives barely two weeks after Stephen Sondheim’s death. For all its flaws, I think it does justice to his work and serves as a fitting tribute to the great composer. As for the original film, I’m sure there will always be people who prefer it to this one. But Spielberg’s film is able to do things that the original could not and would not do, and I think it’s a richer piece of fiction because of that. It may not be a musical I like all that much, but the quality of its artistry can’t be denied.
The “story” in West Side Story may fall a little flat, but that’s okay. Steven Spielberg’s 21st-century update of the classic musical plays to the show’s traditional strengths and creates a film that manages to combine the energy of Broadway with the grandeur of cinema. Ansel Elgort may be woefully miscast, but the same can’t be said of his show-stealing costars like Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose. The musical numbers become sparks of sincerity in a cynical world, and the show-stopping ensemble pieces hit just as hard as the intimate duets and solos. Spielberg’s love for musicals and this musical in particular is evident in every scene, and while the final product is somewhat held back by flaws from the source material, the strengths here outweigh the weaknesses. What West Side Story proves is that in the right hands, a musical can still survive a journey to the big screen and even come out better as a result.
Final Rating: 4 Stars
Where the movie musical will go after this is not yet clear. The film made about $10 million on its opening weekend, and many people are already writing it off as a flop. But it’s getting tons of critical praise and several award nominations/wins, so its fortunes may change with good word of mouth (assuming a new Covid variant doesn’t shut down all the theaters again). Some of the actors are already moving on to other high-profile projects, which is nice to see. The next big musicals to hit the big screen will be Disney’s live-action remakes of The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the latter also starring Rachel Zegler), along with Universal’s perennially in-development film adaptation of Wicked. Personally, I don’t have high hopes for any of those projects. So the movie musical genre may fall apart on us yet. But if that happens, at least we got one more good movie before everything came crashing down.
Coming next week: new flash fiction and a film review of Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY! See you later!