Imagine, just for a second, that you’ve never seen West Side Story. A whole new generation is likely to experience this timeless romance in the form of Steven Spielberg’s vibrantly colored new film version, and thankfully, it’s likely to inspire new fans with a vibrant and uplifting slice of cinema. But damn it, this second half is going to be a shock.
For those who enjoy the classic spectacle and its bold, brassy tunes, a big part of the fun (or not) of a new release is comparing it to the shifting nuances of previous releases, from the 1957 Broadway show to the musical by 1961 through the wobbly performance of your high school.
But even if you ignore any prior knowledge – I’ll admit I don’t know if I’ve seen it all along – this 2021 story does more than stand on its own. This West Side story is an absolute visual delight, filled with vibrant color and thrilling movement, fascinating characters swirling and flashing through a richly drawn city.
West Side Story is in theaters now, having opened on Friday, December 10.
It’s New York City in the 1950s and the Jets and Sharks are rival gangs preparing for a winner-take-all battle. Self-destructive Jets leader Riff wants to recruit his old friend Tony for a big fight with the Jets, but all Tony wants to do is lay eyes on Maria, Shark Leader Bernardo’s sister-in-law. She’s Puerto Rican, he’s a young American delinquent, and none of their extended families are happy to see them together. Dancing and singing ensue on fire escapes and subways, but violent delights come to violent end when the story is inspired by William Shakespeare’s love tragedy Romeo and Juliet.
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski take advantage of visual stops in the first half of the film, with smooth camera movements and an exciting production design providing a vast, textured playing field for every song or dance number. Songs like America explode offscreen, and even the most intimate conversations are chosen in lavish primary colors. It’s joyful, heartfelt and intoxicating, especially in these darker times.
The film features a star performance by the luminous Rachel Zegler as Maria in love, supported by stage turns from Hamilton star Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno, one of the few actual Puerto Ricans in the original performance of Broadway and the 1961 film. Embodying the Puerto Rican immigrants who build a new life in New York with ambition and panache, their characters often converse in Spanish. Even without subtitles, the crucial feelings are unmistakable.
Of course, the ending is rather disappointing. I know, I know, Romeo and Juliet and all that. But the contrast between the thrilling first half and the grim second half is so stark. The second act here is washed away with music and movement, corresponding to the emotional devastation. The first half is the hope, the second half is the loss. Life, then death.
As the story deflates, the scenes become repetitive as the characters visit each other, on what increasingly looks like movie sets, to cry a little. Loss and grief are keenly felt, but the longer it lasts, the more it turns into melodrama.
I am not suggesting that anyone give a happy ending to a classic. But Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner expand and add broader themes of gentrification or identity that the finale has no room for. You can’t open a movie with a literal shot of a wrecking ball and then end it without seeing where it all falls.
Ultimately, Tony and Maria’s core couple have to burn fiercely to keep it all going. We said it before, but these kids really fall quick. This version builds on a backstory for the pair that might suggest that the two see in each other the solution to a greater desire, escape, or redemption. But their real meeting, the fulcrum of this whole story, is remarkably light. The slapstick gymnastics of this Gee Officer Krupke film’s rendering seems to go on forever, but the moment when Cursed Lovers actually cross the stars passes too quickly. Not to sound like an unromantic grumpy old man, but a little stare, a quick dance beat and suddenly they’re in love forever?
No amount of whimsical lighting conceals that the couple never talk about anything unless they are going to meet again, which means their love has to be built entirely on personal chemistry. Ansel Elgort is quite good looking, but chooses to play Tony as a laid back crooner rather than the tortured lover and fighter that the script insists he is. Elgort walks on the fringes of the story rather than leading it with tension as to whether he has really changed, or if someone can really do it. He’s particularly bland next to nervous Mike Faist as Riff or muscular David Alvarez as Bernardo and isn’t the anchor the film needs as he deflates in the second half. That leaves Zegler with a lot of heavy work, and while she’s more than up to the task, there are long gaps when Maria is just not on screen.
It would also be easier to root for these two young lovers if he weren’t so noticeably older than her (Elgort is 27, Zegler 20). Tony is quite arrogant with Maria, often speaking or minimizing his concerns in fact very lucid. Even though Tony is supposed to be obsessed with Maria, Elgort’s flippancy means you don’t have to squint too hard to wonder if he’s just a shrewd talker who knows exactly what to say when he sees it. an ingenious doe-eyed man looking for romance.
Despite the abrupt transition from lavish life-affirming dance numbers to numb tragedy, this 2021 version of a classic story is still an invigorating and invigorating jerk of pure cinema, evoking a breathtaking cinematic spectacle of the most intimate human emotions. . His delicacies are more than a match even for the violent end.
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