“West Side Story” Film Review: Disappointing

I am a HUGE Leonard Bernstein fan (readers can see an earlier post https://thewomenofletters.com/2021/08/26/lenny-b-at-103-a-personal-reflection-on-leonard-bernstein/) so naturally, I love West Side Story. The vibrant, explosive music and percussive rhythms contrasting with touchingly lyrical melodies, all coupled with lyrics by a brilliant young Stephen Sondheim, make it musically unforgettable. Add to it the fact that it is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and you get one of the (arguably) best musicals ever written. The 1961 film by Robert Wise made quite an impression on me, though it has been years since I last saw it and I may not remember everything well. However, it has something that the remake lacks, which has a certain sparkle and energy to it that still lingers in my memory. The 2021 Spielberg version, which has its merits, is a disappointment overall. (SPOILER ALERT for those who have not seen either the original or the remake.)

One of the admirable things that Spielberg has done is to make the new version more culturally sensitive and accurate. He reportedly consulted the Puerto Rican community to remedy the wrongdoings of the past (such as casting white actors like Natalie Wood instead of Puerto Ricans/Latinos). All the actors do their own singing and dancing. Spielberg even included a non-binary actor as Anybody’s. Perhaps the most enjoyable change was the inclusion of the legendary Rita Moreno (who played Anita in the original), in a role created for her that is significant to the story. The film also feels real, like it is indeed gritty, New York that is in our faces. The cast are phenomenally talented, young actors and actresses who are at the top of their game.

However, the primary problem lies in the fact that the film considers itself to be a film and not a musical. The original is very music-driven, whereas this remake is a drama with music. Therefore, it feels very heavy. Tony Kushner, I believe, was not the best choice for screen writer, as it feels like the film is Trying to Make a Statement, rather than draw us in with a beautifully-crafted, scored tragedy. There is a certain flatness and dullness, and Spielberg’s direction oddly lacks energy at times. We don’t always feel a sense of urgency that is required, given that the action takes place in a very short time span, and that the plot revolves around gangs and vengeance. Visually, the film looks dull and drab for the most part. Odd choices are made with camera angles, the problem usually being longshots that distance the viewer from the action (though the cinematography is beautiful). The overall result is that there is a certain coldness to the tone of the film.

I understand that the “West Side Story” remake is trying to be relevant and address sensitive cultural politics. Unfortunately, it loses sight of the fact that it is a musical, a medium that is meant to entertain.

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