Steven Spielberg took part in the mammoth project at the end of the year WEST SIDE STORY-New edition accepted and pulls out all the stops when it comes to staging. However, there are gaps in the content and a blatant lack of casting. We reveal more about this in our review of a film that, despite everything, is still absolutely thrilling.
OT: West Side Story (USA 2021)
New York in the 1950s: A romance develops between the fronts of a gang war between the local Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks that shouldn’t be allowed to happen at that time. The Jets founder and criminal Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with the beautiful, smart Maria (Rachel Zegler), who in turn is the sister of the Shark leader Bernardos (David Alvarez). At first the two can keep their love secret. But the dispute between the rival gangs escalates and a happy future for both of them is in jeopardy. The catastrophe is not long in coming…
In his now over sixty (!) years of career, Steven Spielberg made some film classics that have stood the test of time. These include the World War II drama “Schindler’s List”, the adventure cult “Jurassic Park” and the timeless alien fairy tale “ET – The Extra-Terrestrial”. He recently proved that he never closed his eyes to the technical possibilities of modernity with his work on the pop culture quote slingshot “Ready Player One”. But also in the failed “BFG. – Big Frandly Giant”. In it, a CGI monster became the focus of a story; And this is something so modern that not all of the long-established directorial icons have any interest in it and instead prefer to return to a production like in the “good old days”. Despite such an unparalleled resume, Spielberg described his reimagining of the Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical “West Side Story,” loosely based on “Romeo and Juliet,” as “the biggest challenge of his career”. The almost 75-year-old would have such great respect and love for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’ 1960s film adaptation, which was nominated for eleven Oscars. And yet he dared to do it and – perhaps precisely because of this reverence for the original – did not dare to make it in a way that necessarily corresponded to the current technical standard, but rather staged a decidedly nostalgic film that could just as easily have been many decades old. The question inevitably arises: Why are you making a work that has already been made? “in old” there, actually again “in old” and doesn’t you take advantage of the fact that you would have had so many opportunities to explore new shores here?
Braulio (Sebastian Serra), Flaco (Ricky Ubeda) and Bernardo (David Alvarez) belong to the Sharks.
Now the timelessness of the material stands for itself. The gang rivalries, the everyday racism towards Puerto Rican migrants, the police violence: none of this necessarily needs a new guise. What’s more: perhaps these topics have even more emotional punch once you realize that the status quo has hardly changed over so many decades. In addition, Spielberg and his regular cameraman Janusz Kaminski (“The Judge – Law or Honor”), who is likely to be nominated for the 2022 Academy Award for Best Cinematographer, will design a New York of the 1950s that, despite its return to a grainy, high-contrast and light-intensive imagery that avoids the stage look of the first adaptation, has a contemporary, high-gloss look. “West Side Story” wallows in a nostalgia that doesn’t deny its 2021 origins. And maybe this approach is the best for such a musical classic!? The singing and dance scenes, which were created with enormous choreographic effort, are shown to their best advantage in their colorful, energetic staging. Above all, the omnipresent lightness is beguiling, giving rise to a feeling of improvisation even in the meticulously planned crowd scenes; And this happens even when hundreds of people perform the same dance steps at the exact same second, down to the millimeter. This makes “West Side Story” a far better musical in 2021 than the thematically related film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit “In the Heights”, which, beneath all its perfection, is nowhere near as rough and serious in terms of content missed life.
“Above all, the omnipresent lightness is beguiling, which creates a feeling of improvisation even in the meticulously planned crowd scenes; And this happens even when hundreds of people perform the same dance steps at the exact same second, to the millimeter.”
In short: “West Side Story” is a two and a half hour rush that you have to get involved in (especially as a musical skeptic). Gang rivalries between criminals snapping and dancing to the beat could seem a little silly in the original. But that’s the way the (musical) concept is, which Spielberg has fully internalized for his version. In addition, the material benefits from a huge collection of catchy tunes that have been able to develop an impact beyond the musical itself over the decades. These include the USA anthem “America” and the enchanting duet “Somewhere” between Tony and Maria. On a formal level, “West Side Story” cannot be criticized. What’s more: the numerous school classes that will study the material in the coming years (decades) can look forward to one of the best musical adaptations of recent years; However, like everyone else, we have to accept some weaknesses in terms of content and acting, which only slightly weaken the enjoyment of the film, but save Spielberg’s film from being viewed in retrospect as one of the best of his career. Although he himself is hardly to blame for this, screenwriter Tony Kushner in particular is to blame (“Lincoln”)which sets some new story impulses that are not good for the content.
Things sparkle between Maria (Rachel Zegler) and Tony (Ansel Elgort) right away…
First of all, there is the remarkable non-acting of leading actor Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”). For the young mime, who is particularly convincing in the youth book adaptation “Fate is a lousy traitor”, the role of Jet founder Tony seems like an impossible burden that he approaches with omnipresent disinterest. The filming of “West Side Story” took place in the summer of 2019 and thus before the #MeToo allegations against Elgort (which went largely unnoticed in this country). Nevertheless, his performance almost seems concealing because of this; as if he didn’t want to attract attention, as if he wasn’t being noticed. His facial expressions are minimal, and his unbridled love for Maria is pure assertion. And his existence as a criminal never comes into play in “West Side Story,” which destroys an essential appeal of the problematic Tony-Maria love story. Opposite him is the newcomer Rachel Zegler, who can easily make up for his lack. She languishes so beautifully at the same time with a rebellious attitude of absolutely wanting to break up the gang rivalries – and sings excellently at the same time! It is particularly unfortunate that the focus here is more than ever on Tony, while Maria deals with the character type that is no longer up to date “Damsel in Distress” has to be content. Not only is Tony a much less attractive character because of Elgort’s acting, but he also loses some of his rough edges as his criminal energies are smoothed over. The attraction between the lovers also suffers as a result – for a story that draws its emotions primarily from an intense love story, this would be a death sentence if the rest of “West Side Story” wasn’t so formally perfect. You can easily overlook these gaps in content. Respectively: You actually have to in order not to get caught up in the fact that a surprising amount of narrative is left behind here.
“It is unfortunate that the focus here is more than ever on Tony, while Maria has to make do with the character type of ‘Damsel in Distress’, which is no longer up to date.”
How fortunate that the cinematic dimensions of the 2021 “West Side Story” are so huge that such weak points remain side notes here. Nevertheless, they can be identified as such so clearly that it is all the more annoying that they made it into the finished version. Spielberg’s film is a formidable craftsmanship, through this Exciting (love) story, which in the original is also impressive on a narrative level, but here falls significantly short of the standard in terms of quality.
Conclusion: Despite its obvious weaknesses in content, “West Side Story” is one of the best musical productions of recent years and with a different leading actor it could possibly become a similarly timeless classic as the 1960s version already is.
“West Side Story” can be seen in USA cinemas from December 9, 2021.