Director Steven Spielberg brings his signature movie magic to “West Side Story,” a remake of the beloved 1961 Oscar-winning film. It’s a movie that we didn’t really need, but theater fans will likely be pleased with this eye-popping, grand scale version of the classic musical. It’s not a slam dunk by any means, but this spirited retelling gets a whole lot right.
The film is a mostly by-the-book remake with a few minor updates. In a spin on “Romeo and Juliet,” the film tells the tragic love story of immigrant Maria (Rachel Zegler) and local boy Tony (Ansel Elgort). Set in New York City in 1957, the young lovers find themselves connected to opposite sides of warring street gags: the Sharks, comprised of young men from Puerto Rico who are led by Maria’s brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), and the Jets, a group of local white boys led by Tony’s best friend Riff (Mike Faist). The rival groups are vying for control of the neighborhood and frequently engage in violent altercations they call “rumbles.” Tony and Maria’s romance complicate an already heated situation.
The story places a large focus on race and racism, but thankfully Spielberg’s film is nowhere near as stereotypical as the original. Screenwriter Tony Kushner tries to add more depth to the story by building back stories for some of the characters, but his efforts don’t contribute much to the narrative. The story still feels dated and bigoted rather than updated and modern.
It’s a good looking film, though. Despite an irritating overuse of lens flares, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski works in unison with Spielberg (they’re longtime collaborators for a reason), and their shared vision results in a project that looks like it’s from a vintage time capsule. The camera moves along in time with the performers, creating a fluid, uninterrupted viewing experience. The film is crafted on a grand scale, with impressive musical numbers and complex choreography, with plenty of singing and show-stopping dance routines. The costumes are colorful and detailed and simply wonderful. The musical theater components (with one exception) are the best of the best.
The film does have a few major problems, however. First is the horrible miscasting of Elgort as Tony. He doesn’t have the personality nor charisma to carry the leading man role, and his performance is rigid, bland, and close to disastrous. The chemistry between Elgort and Zelger is nonexistent, which creates a big, big problem. Her take on the bright-eyed Maria is fine, but her performance is highly animated (something that tends to be an issue when theater actors and YouTube stars who are cast in movies). Put them together and their love story, which is the integral piece of the narrative, is lacking. The vocal performances seem either weak or strained, which is a big issue here. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s classic, well-known songs sound mediocre. I won’t be rushing out to buy the film soundtrack.
But for every negative, there are plenty of things to like about “West Side Story.” Fans of the Broadway original and musical theater in general will find much to enjoy as Spielberg’s elaborate vision comes to life onscreen.
By: Louisa Moore