West Side Story 2021

West Side Story is an epic marvel that puts other films of its scale to shame

Ansel Elgort aside, the faults in Steven Spielberg’s new film lie entirely in the original stage play.

The best adaptations of Romeo & Juliet understand, implicitly, that this adolescent romance was doomed to fail regardless of any feud. Children fall in love, often deeply. In a few short years, they will be entirely new people who may no longer be compatible. The compulsive attachment at the centre of this doomed love story is inscribed by circumstance. If there were no feuding families, if the world weren’t crumbling around them, they wouldn’t be locked in a fatal embrace. 

Rachel Zegler west side story 2021
Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story, 2021

In this sense, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story works well. It’s a film about social and cultural changes. A drone-like camera movement surveys a neighbourhood being torn down to build a cultural centre in the opening shot. Much like in Robert Wise’s original film adaptation from 1961, our star-crossed lovers don’t make an appearance till several sequences later. This story doesn’t belong to them as much as it belongs to the neighbourhood. 

In adapting the beloved stage play and film, screenwriter Tony Kushner modernizes the discourse around cultural tensions. The treatment of the police brings added nuance, the subtext of upholding white supremacist values closer to the forefront. The tension between rival gangs, white and Puerto Rican, underlines white resentment over changing demographics. While gentrification threatens all of their histories, the legacy of generations of immigrants erased in service of “culture.” Entire neighbourhoods are flattened to keep out the non-white and the poor. 

Ariana DeBose (in yellow) in West Side Story, 2021

Unlike the original film, this adaptation also hires Latinx actors to play the roles. Not necessarily worthy of praise, it’s the bare minimum but still noteworthy in how political considerations around the text have shifted. The film features far more Spanish than the 1961 version and it’s rarely subtitled. This choice may ruffle some feathers, but aesthetically, it rings true in the overall treatment of the text. It doesn’t subtract from the experience but underlines the relationships between community and language, particularly the role of assimilation in American identity. It’s a reasonably bold choice in a film aimed at a wide audience. 

Spielberg is a dazzling stylist who successfully brings the music and dancing to the screen. Unsurprisingly, he reunites with long-term collaborator Janusz Kamiński, who shot most of his films since Schindler’s List in 1994. The movie uses colour beautifully to articulate power dynamics and a greater sense of community. Even the colour grading puts contemporaries to shame, highlighting how drab and textureless most mainstream cinema is. Unlike many contemporary musicals, the singing and dancing unfold organically without many cuts. Rather than physical edits, sweeping camera movements are used to reframe the shot and bring added dynamism to the film. 

Ansel Elgort (centre) with Rachel Zegler in West Side Story, 2021

All that being said, the film isn’t a home run either. Ansel Elgort is void of charisma. He fails to match the intensity of wonderment of Rachel Zegler as Maria. Their romance doesn’t suffer too much, though; it was equally dull in the 1961 film. Most of the other cast is fantastic, though. Ariana DeBose had enormous shoes to fill in the role of Anita, immortalized by Rita Moreno. She steals every scene she’s in. In this version, Moreno plays Valentina, the shop owner where Anton works and grounds the film beyond the follies and obsessions of youth. Mike Faist and David Alvarez, as leaders of the Jets and the Sharks, respectively, bring enormous weight to a conflict we know is fruitless and destructive. 

The other issues with the film lie more with the original stage play. The musical is too long and bloated, grinding to a halt without much singing and dancing in most scenes. Most of the memorable numbers are in the first half, and, particularly in 2021, some musical arrangements feel old-fashioned though they are loyal to the original text. Your appreciation of Spielberg’s adaptation will rely heavily on your appreciation of the original text. I love musicals, and West Side Story has never been a favourite. This film hasn’t changed my mind, though I appreciate its approach. 

West Side Story is a marvel. It’s epic in a classic sense, embracing the inherent artifice of musical theatre while grounding the story in a more embodied reality. It puts other films of its scale to shame. It’s rich and considered, beautiful and thoughtful in approach. While it can’t quite overcome the issues of the original, it’s nonetheless a fantastically beautiful film. ■

West Side Story opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 10.

West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg

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