I never had….interest in watching “West Side Story” before now. I’m aware it’s considered one of the greatest musicals of all time but something about just how it looked and presented itself turned me off from giving it a chance…..so what changed?
Short version: Steven Spielberg. Long version: EVERYTHING!
Let me just say not many people can take control of a camera and commandeer an entire set like Steven Spielberg. Instead of just updating the story historically or making it a shot-for-shot remake, Spielberg just reproduced the ambience from the original while keeping the blueprints of the stage origins and just updated the rest with today’s modern sensibilities without ripping out the bone marrow. Honestly, is doing that so hard nowadays? Not only is he obviously getting an infectious kick out of bringing a classic musical back to the forefront, Spielberg hardly has to tiptoe over that delicate line between an affectionate tribute and a gentle corrective.
Not ONE performance disappoints. As inconsistent as Ansel Elgort is, he holds his own just enough to be a passable lovesick dope. But with the exception of Mike Faist’s grimy, rodent-like magnetism, the men aren’t nearly as gripping in their quantity and a quality as the women easily outshine them all. Rachel Ziegler not only has an angelic voice but is luminous as the hopeful Maria, rivaled only by that of Ariana DuBose’s fearless charisma and Rita Moreno stepping in as the voice of reason.
Whether gliding through the streets or slums with reckless exhilaration or taking in the subdued but somber earnest of the quieter moments, Janusz Kamiński knows where to place his shots with each frame popping off the screen, bouncing up and down to match the energy of the room or the performers. If Justin Pecks’ choreography hadn’t been renewed with that super dosed spike of adrenaline or the editing had been just a tiny bit uncoordinated and messy, something would not have clicked.
Every crevice of every apartment or slum or a simple gaze at the sun or moonlight is foretelling of thematic production design that thrives on intimate details and an atmosphere with an updated gritter edge and from the desaturated, bombed-out-city-block, grimy reality associated not just with Hell’s Kitchen but all of New York, a living, breathing, decaying neighborhood comes to life and, in a way, becomes as crucial of a central character as the ones inhabiting it.
And all of the songs from Leonard Bernstein and the late Stephen Sondheim are nothing less than poetic with that upshot; with toe-tapping tunes laced alongside those tightly choreographed sequences I mentioned earlier to such an instinctive rhythm and flow. Sure, the dialogue and lyrics can come off a little clunky and preachy here and there but how an actor or director carries out that execution can change the entire complexity of how it stands out. It’s firmly broad alongside the larger-than-life characters and well…..the story underneath it all.
Said story maintains everything I loved about Romeo and Juliet: from the tragedy, the slight glimmers of hope, the ridiculous romance and the uncanny references to such a classic story to the original West Side Story’s stark approach to raging social problems regarding racism, poverty, and the destructiveness of violence in ANY era. The fatalistic drama between the two unpopular gangs who refuse to see there’s a lot they have in common with the other is touched upon more of here with diversity glistening at the forefront and the ill-dated love story burrowed in-between the grimy backdrop of the films context.
Nothing about any aspect of this story is overshadowed or downplayed by its aesthetics or musical numbers like the original; despite the long runtime, it bleeds seamlessly into and onto what the original film briefly touched upon while bringing everything that should’ve been featured the first time around back into the forefront and gravitating towards the root of the problem: the human condition.
Not only the superior version of the story (or more specifically, the incarnation of the story I prefer) but also one of the best films I’ve seen this year. And dare I say, one of the best musicals too. I cannot give this any justice; you want to see what the hype is about, go see for yourself.