I’m sure you’ve all seen some kind of adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, being, of course, the most recognised play of all time, from actual professional theatre performances to those cringy contemporary adaptations that try to make the story “hip” to “the youth of today”. But imagine for a second that one of those contemporary adaptations was good, like really, REALLY good. Welcome to West Side Story. A question I had when this film was announced was “why now?”. With many remakes, there is often a contextual reason for making it and it doesn’t feel like we needed this film, but who can complain with Steven Spielberg at the helm with his first musical film of his decorated career. It comes as no surprise then that West Side Story is impressive, much more impressive than I thought it would be.
Diving straight into the strongest link of the film is how it never loses focus on what is important. The running theme of racial divide between The Jets, a gang of young, white Americans and The Sharks, a gang of Puerto Ricans, in a neighbourhood that is being demolished around them leaks into every corner of the film. Nowhere is this more evident than in West Side Story’s sharply choreographed dance sequences. Choreographed to perfection, Spielberg does amazing work at making the claustrophobic space in which these sequences take place look much bigger than they are, you see everyone giving it 110%. The dance in the school gym probably shows the racial divide with the most clarity, the headmaster of the school does his best to mix people, but they end up with their own side and a line in the sand is drawn between the two.
When it comes to performance, I don’t think there is anyone you can pick out as being particularly bad, everyone does a pretty decent job with their very demanding roles. But I think the shining star amongst them is Rachel Zegler as María in her first-ever role. You would not think that she’s never acted in a production like this before because she makes acting a lead role so effortless. That’s not even touching on how incredible her voice is. This is another new face in Hollywood that you can’t wait to see again in other films and down the line when she’s hopefully a regular on the big screen, it will fill you with pride because you saw her starting out.
A respectable part of this film is choosing to have a blend of English and Spanish, but without subtitling the Spanish parts. Now the original film did this also so to carry on this is pretty respectful to the Hispanic audience as Spanish is the second language of the US. Something new this West Side Story brings to the table however are barriers, and lots of them. Often with the scenes, there will always be some sort of metal bars or gating between characters, especially with Tony and María. Someone who looks for layers in a film would say this is done to highlight the proverbial barrier that prevents them from being together. I think Spielberg more than anyone knows the importance of consistently reinforcing your film’s theme to the audience.
You’ll have such a fun time taking in the dancing, the singing and the story that weak links in the film can go missed but believe me, they are there and here are just some of them. Whilst I previously said that the whole cast does a decent job with the roles given to them, I do think that Ansel Elgort, who plays Tony, does struggle with the tough-guy part of his character. He makes the best of it sure, but the scenes where his character is love-stricken is where he seems to put most of his effort in. I don’t think he’s a bad actor, but I do think that the character of Tony has many plates to spin, and he puts in a valiant effort to keep them spinning, but some inevitably break.
For something that was to present itself as truly capturing the grittiness of its period, it’s suspiciously polished. You’ve probably seen a film like this where the make-up on the actors looks a little, too perfect. It would probably go overlooked if there weren’t so many lens flares to bring it to light, in doing so it juxtaposes the intensity the film can set sometimes. Though I can accept how lens flare implies an unedited image and invoke a sense of drama, I’ve never been a huge fan of the technique. I’m someone who likes to see all the frame and lens flare slices through images so you can never appreciate the whole picture.
When you list of great directors, I’ve started to notice Spielberg getting less mentioned every year, which is a pity because this man is an icon of blockbuster cinema. West Side Story may not drastically change his current image, but this film does show audiences how a master can choreograph scenes. It’s hard to realise that this is Spielberg’s first musical in his career, but the way he uses space, direction and theme gives the impression that he’s already a prominent figure in the genre. Just classic filmmaking and a brilliant time watching it do its thing.
Final Result: 7/10 – Good
Have you seen West Side Story? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Next Time: Spider-Man: No Way Home