Pretend, just for a second, that you’ve never seen West Side Story. A whole new generation may discover this timeless romance as the colorful new film version of Steven Spielberg, and happily it is likely to inspire new fans with a dynamic, exhilarating piece of cinema. But boy is the second half going to be a shocker.
For those who love the classic show and its bold, choppy tunes, a great deal of the enjoyment (or not) of any new version is comparing it to the changing nuances of previous versions, from the 1957 Broadway show The faltering performance of the 1961 movie musical To Your High School.
But even if you disregard any previous knowledge—I admit I’m lazy about whether I’ve ever actually seen it—it’s more than 2021 to stand on my own two feet. Retailing. This West Side Story is an utter visual delight, filled with eye-popping color and heart-pounding movement, as charming characters roaming and glowing in a thriving city.
West Side Story opens on Friday, December 10.
This is 1950s New York and the Jets and Sharks are rival gangs building up to a winner-all-fight. Self-destructing Jet leader Riff wants to recruit his old friend Tony for a big ruckus with the Jets, but all Tony wants is to turn his eyes on Shark leader Bernardo’s beautiful sister, Maria. He is Puerto Rican, he is a pan-American juvenile delinquent and none of his extended family is happy to see them together. There is dancing and singing on fire escapes and on the subway, but violent delight ends when the story is inspired by William Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet.
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski pull out the visual stops in the film’s first half, with flowing camera movements and thrilling production design providing a vast and textured playground for each showstopping song or dance number. Songs like America blast the screen and even the most intimate conversations are chosen in gorgeous primary colors. It’s delightful, honest and intoxicating stuff, especially in these darkest of times.
The film features a star-making performance from the dazzling Rachel Ziegler as the cutie Maria, backed by scene-stealing twists from Hamilton star Ariana DeBos and Rita Moreno, who played the original Broadway show and some real Puerto in the 1961 film. One of the Ricans. Playing Puerto Rican immigrants building a new life in New York with ambition and panache, their characters often converse in Spanish. Even without subtitles, critical feelings are unmistakable.
Of course, the ending is kind of a downer. I know, I know, Romeo and Juliet and all that. But the difference between the exciting first half and the black second half is so clear. The second act here is filled with music and movement, which fits in with the emotional mayhem. Hope in the first half, defeat in the second half. Life, then death.
As the story progresses, scenes are repeated as the characters visit each other for a bit of a cry for what looks like a film set. There is a deep feeling of loss and heartbreak, but the longer it goes on, the more it moves towards melodrama.
I’m not suggesting that anyone ditch the happy ending on the classic. But Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner expanded and added larger themes of gentrification, or identity, for which there is no room in the finale. You can’t open a movie with a literal shot of a wrecking ball and then end it without seeing where everything falls.
In the end, the central pairing of Tony and Maria needs to burn intensely to keep the whole thing going. It’s been said before, but those kids really fall Fast, This version relies on backstory to the pair which may suggest that the two see each other as a solution to a greater yearning, for escape or redemption. But their real meet-cute, the basis of this entire story, is remarkably minor. The slapstick gymnastics of this film’s rendition of G Officer Krupke seems to go on forever, but the moment the star-crossed lovers actually cross the stars, it zooms in pretty quickly. Not like some not-so-romantic old husky, but a little stare, a quick pulsation of the dance and suddenly they’re in eternal love?
No amount of fancy lighting hides that the couple never talks about anything except that they’re going to see each other again, which means their love is completely personal. Should be based on Chemistry. Ansel Elgort is handsome enough, but chooses to play Tony as a laid-back badass instead of the tyrannical lover and the script insists that he is. Elgort hangs around at the margins of the story, rather than whether he has really changed, or whether or not one really can. She’s especially good next to sinful Mike Faust as Riff or muscular David Alvarez as Bernardo and isn’t the anchor the film needs as it degrades in the second half. This leaves Ziegler with a lot of heavy lifting and long gaps when she’s overworked when Mariah simply isn’t on screen.
It would also be easier for these two young lovers to take root if he wasn’t clearly older than her (Elgort is 27, Ziegler 20). Tony is very pushy with Maria, often talking to her or downplaying concerns with a very clear eye indeed. Even though Tony must be obsessed with Maria, Elgort’s recklessness means it’s hard not to make you wonder if he’s just a smart talker who knows when he’s a doe-eyed simple nerd. What does he have to say when he sees romance?
Despite turning from scintillating, life-affirming dance numbers to numbing tragedy, this 2021 edition of the classic tale is still a taut and life-affirming jolt of pure cinema, a breathtaking cinematic spectacle from the most intimate human emotions. Its joy is more than a match for the violent ending.