Monday, December 27, 2021

West Side Story (2021): A Review



Musicals are a hard sell nowadays. Making remakes is already a daunting task. What then to think when people decide to film a remake to a musical that won ten Academy Awards and is thought of as one of the greatest films ever made? West Side Story attempts to simultaneously bring the material forward and keep it in its time frame. While not without its virtues, separate from the original, it fumbles more than it catches.

As their neighborhood starts getting demolished to build Lincoln Center, two rival gangs fight it out for control of the turf. The Caucasian Jets face their bitter rivals, the Puerto Rican Sharks. Jets leader Riff (Mike Faist) decides it is time for the final rumble and challenges Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez) at a dance.

Riff wants his BFF, former jailbird Tony (Ansel Elgort) to back him up, but Tony really does not want to. He goes anyway, and there he sees Maria (Rachel Zegler), Bernardo's sister. They instantly fall in love, complicating matters for everyone.

While drug store owner Valentina (Rita Moreno) suggests caution to her employee Tony when it comes to wooing Maria, Tony is too much in love. Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) also wants everyone to slow down, but she is not heeded. Things take an ugly turn at the rumble, where Riff and Bernardo are killed. With our lovers now thwarted, will there be a place for them or will the hate all around them condemn them too?

One of my greatest difficulties in looking over West Side Story is that I am too familiar with the 1961 version. I work to keep that knowledge from coloring my view on the 2021 version, both pro and con. I try to put myself in the mindset of someone who has never seen either the original film or a stage adaptation. I think people who are unfamiliar with the original version will enjoy it.  

There is plenty to appreciate. West Side Story is almost universally well-acted and performed. Ariana DeBose is a standout as Anita: smart, proud and unafraid to speak her mind. When not singing DeBose holds her own, transcending the "Latina spitfire" stereotype to make Anita an independent woman. When singing and dancing DeBose showcases real vibrancy and enthusiasm. 

Faist's Riff is also fascinating, a young man tightly wound up, always on edge, the nerves hidden under the bravado. I wasn't overwhelmed by Alvarez's Bernardo as much as I was with DeBose or Faist, but he did well in showing Bernardo's machismo, not so well with showing Bernardo's caring for Maria or Anita. I don't think Josh Andres Rivera as Chino has received enough credit. Usually seen as a minor character/plot device, here he is given more to do. Chino is the one who is getting an education, the embodiment of upward mobility, who likes Maria but perhaps is not truly in love with her. Pleasant but doomed to excessive loyalty, Chino's role has opened up, and Rivera makes his journey worth watching.

Zegler is also exceptionally strong as Maria, even if her singing bordered on operatic by the end. At the A Boy Like That/I Have a Love number, Zegler slipped into bombast, especially next to the more naturalistic DeBose. To be fair, this is Zegler's debut, so her slips into "deer-in-the-headlights" look can be forgiven. Still, West Side Story should make for a good calling card in her career.

And then there is Elgort. Granted, I have never thought Elgort had any talent and continue to wonder why Hollywood pushes him at us. However, Elgort is totally blank as Tony, his facial expression never changing. I should be fair in that Tony is one of the weakest characters in theater, his sole purpose to be lovelorn. Still, Elgort brings nothing but a monotone to Tony, and his singing is worse. Hearing him belt out Maria is a bit painful, and Cool was no better. Thinking of him as a tough ex-con newly released from prison is laughable.

And here is where I have my beef with West Side Story: the musical numbers. The songs are still strong in and of themselves. However, it was the staging of many of them that I have an issue with. Sometimes they are quite pleasant: I Feel Pretty being sung at the department store makes it flow and has a light, jaunty feel. Something's Coming too is more fluid as Tony strolls around Doc's Drug Store. 

Others though fall flat. The Mambo number is filled with too many sweeping camera movements to let the audience appreciate the choreography. In fact, the entire dance section is pretty bad: flare lights and cuts that focus on the face than the body. It brought to mind what Ginger Rogers allegedly said while watching Stayin' Alive. In disgust, she reported said, "These kids think they can dance with their faces!" By that it was meant that there was a greater emphasis on close-ups, thus robbing audiences of the body's movement. West Side Story similarly has that issue.

Take Cool, where because the camera moves often you do not get what I figure should be the tension between Riff and Tony building. You see their legs, feet and hands, but because there is no master shot, you see only parts of the dance. I also wonder if having Moreno sing Somewhere was a good idea. This used to be Tony and Maria's prayer for hope, but by shifting it to the new character of Valentina takes away focus on their love story and shifts it towards a more general "brotherhood of man" type.

The worst number is probably Gee, Officer Krupke. Here, we somehow slip away from the more realistic staging that director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner were going for and go into almost bizarre. Seeing these kids all but trash the police station with elaborate dance (again with no time to appreciate the choreography) is bad enough. However, for me the Gee, Officer Krupke sequence shows how the Jets have no personalities. They are nothing more than backup dancers.

As a side note, why there seemed to be a greater emphasis on the minor character of Anybodys (Iris Menas) who isn't even a real Jets member is unclear. Anybodys is not formally introduced until the Gee, Officer Krupke number, but we see Anybodys forever hovering in scenes, such as when despite being identified as female by everyone else Anybodys casually is in the male dance line to pick partners at the dance. 

I noticed that the separation between the Jets and the Sharks via color-coded costumes was stronger to where it was dangerously close to farcical. Same with some of the dance numbers, which curiously did not draw on the original Jerome Robbins choreography but went with another choreographer, Justin Peck. 

Finally, on the lack of subtitles, again that is difficult for me to judge. As I do speak Spanish, I understood what was being said. I do not think it was a major problem given that non-Spanish speakers could understand things based on context and scenery. However, I think subtitles would have helped enhance certain sections, such as when Anita complains that she is not considered "part of the family" because she is "prieta" (Spanish for "darker-skinned"). 

I think Spielberg was completely wrong in his thinking that subtitles give English power over Spanish. To my mind, using the term "Latinx" gives English power over Spanish, as that to my mind is cultural imperialism. "Latinx" forces English rules and American cultural sensitivities into a foreign language to my mind. I, as both a Spanish-speaker and Hispanic, would have preferred subtitles be included. It is not a major issue, but it is an issue.

West Side Story is good, but it could have been better. As it stands, it has the benefits of some great performances but the drawbacks of some weak musical numbers. 


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