MOVIE REVIEW: “West Side Story” stars Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver, Divergent), Rachel Zegler (Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Disney’s Snow White), Ariana DeBose (Hamilton, The Prom), David Alvarez (American Rust [TV series], The Stamp Collector [Short]), Rita Moreno (West Side Story , The King and I), Brian d’Arcy James (Spotlight, 13 Reasons Why [TV series]), Corey Stoll (Midnight in Paris, Ant-Man), Mike Faist (The Atlantic City Story, Wildling), Josh Andrés Rivera (Cat Person, Vegas High [TV Movie]), and Iris Menas (Way Down [TV series], Ridley Jones [TV series]). It is directed by Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan), with the screenplay being written by Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich).
Two newfound lovers in Manhattan find themselves in the middle of a turf war between street gangs Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks.
My knowledge on musicals is slim. It’s rare that I place myself in front of one (especially the classics that originated on stage), but when Spielberg’s “West Side Story” got nominated for Best Picture, I had to scratch the curiosity itch.
For those of you who don’t know, this feature is a remake of the broadway musical and 1961 version of the same name. Spielberg grew up surrounded by the music of “West Side Story,” and felt a desire to reimagine the classic through his lens. That involved swooping shots, elaborate set pieces, and a few character changes to fit with the modern times (because why not modernize something set in the 50s?). What resulted is a well-orchestrated piece of cinema that will certainly wow audiences in its scope, but may be a tough sell in regards to story.
As I’ve found in talking with people about the movie, “West Side Story” isn’t for everyone. There are hardcore fans who grew up with it, and others who place it at the bottom of their list. I never knew what to make of it until I saw it, and having witnessed this iteration I believe I belong to the latter. It’s a repackaging of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in Upper West Side Manhattan in 1957. You’ve got rival gangs competing for turf, and a set of star-crossed lovers caught in the middle of it all. The ending isn’t the same as Shakespeare’s classic, but the skeleton of the story certainly lends a great deal to the man. And while I respect the story of Romeo and Juliet, seeing it portrayed in this setting didn’t make me fall in love.
Spielberg has an eye unlike any other. Regardless of the quality of his pictures, they look stunning. “West Side Story” is no exception. I loved the visuals of this. The set pieces are terrific, from production design to wardrobe to dance choreography. He clearly understands the source material and makes it his own. Sure, some of the sequences can be silly, but that’s more of a story thing than a director thing (tough street gangs who snap their fingers and dance? Come on, son). “West Side Story” is a technical achievement that, as a filmmaker, I appreciate. Some scenes stick with me (like the “America” music number and school dance sequence), and a few of the songs aren’t too shabby. What irks me about this movie has more to do with the story itself than anything else.
Those of you who know the tale of Romeo and Juliet can understand how this plot will play out. It checks off all the boxes. But that doesn’t bother me; it’s a reinvention of that story, after all. What I don’t care for are the characters. Certain decisions had me raising an eyebrow, and as the narrative progressed, I found myself at arm’s length from understanding these figures on the screen. The story takes many creative liberties at the expense of logical character choices. This can happen in musicals (like the fact that they are singing and dancing to solve their problems), but with “West Side Story” it was too much for comfort. Style over substance would best classify what this movie is, and while I enjoy seeing a filmmaker’s fingerprint on whatever they create, the lack of compelling characters made me bored (or ask questions as to why these people did what they did). This has nothing to do with the performances, mind you, as I thought everyone knocked it out of the park; it’s more so the material that put them under.
I wanted more from “West Side Story.” Or at least… some more logic. It’s a big-scope musical orchestrated by a filmmaking legend, so it’s going to be well-made. But at its finer points (concerning story) I was left dissatisfied. Of course, I’m aware that this is all a matter of opinion. People like the tale of “West Side Story,” but if you find yourself to be disinterested in that narrative, I can assure you that this one won’t win you over. FINAL SCORE: 66%= Burnt Popcorn
Here is the trailer: