Steven Spielberg making – well remaking – a musical? Why not. This is the second feature-length adaptation of the 1957 West Side Story stage musical by Arthur Laurents with music by Leonard Bernstein, and lyrics by the dearly departed Stephen Sondheim – I’m no musical theatre fan but even I know who he is. This newest adaptation stars Ansel Elgort (Divergent Saga, Men Women & Children) and newcomer Rachel Zegler, with Arianna DeBose (Prom, Hamilton), David Alvarez (American Rust), Mike Faist (Panic), and Rita Moreno – who starred in the previous movie based on this musical.
Premise: Teenagers Tony and María, despite having affiliations with rival street gangs, the Jets and Sharks, fall in love in 1950s New York City.
Review: Going in I vaguely knew about this muscial, and thought it was Romeo and Juliet with song and dance, so I was not ready for the racist undertones laced throughout. I mean not at all, and the whole time I was thinking people sing these songs – in particular the jets’ songs – knowing the jets hate the sharks because they’re “foreign” and not white? Knowing they did the same with the Egyptian Kings? – who I’m guessing were people of color.
To make matters worse, I checked the 1960s version, because I suspected the racism to be more blatant in that version – since some of the Jets in Spielberg’s movie seemed a bit swirly, like their were mixed or something; – and oh boy was I wrong. I first stopped at a picture of the 1961 Jets and it screamed aryan brotherhood to me. But the worse thing about it is that Spielberg’s movie seems to be the one not shying away from the racism with a few shashays and harmonies, the old version is.
I figured this movie would have some kind of message, which is I’m guessing along the lines of “an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind?”, but even with that kind of message I don’t think that this movie is worth it. To me it only serves as a reminder that some people are trash, time passed and things remained somewhat the same or got worse. The movie itself didn’t make me sad, my eyes were dry throughout, but it was sad to see that not much has changed in particular when it comes to how people treat each other.
All of that said, I realized that I’ve heard some of those songs unaware that they were from this musical. There is also a lot more to like in this movie when it comes to how it was put together. The cast is amazing, delivering jaw dropping performances. A lot of them, are actors to watch. I never suspected that Elgort could sing like that and his fellow cast members showed him up a bit despite some of them being relative unknowns. The directing is on point, the sets, the dance numbers and the costumes are great, but I just couldn’t get into the story. It starts well enough I guess but it goes off the rails and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There’s no amount of pretty singing and dancing that would have blinded me to the problems I have with the story. Some of the characters’ actions doesn’t make a lot of sense to me maybe the actors didn’t sell it too well but to be honest I don’t think anyone could have. I have yet to watch the 1961 version in full but the two scenes I saw – The introduction scene and the I feel pretty song – and they were cringey for a whole sets of reasons.
West Side Story looks cool, the dances and music are catchy enough, but I just couldn’t get into the story. However I suspect Spielberg to have made meaningful but subtle changes to highten the social commentary
If you’re interested in the soundtrack, help us by getting them from the links below: