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West Side Story (2021)


The classic Broadway musical from heavyweights Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Sondheim is back with a new coat of paint. It was released in theaters shortly after Sondheim’s passing. The musical is based on Romeo and Juliet. Steven Spielberg occupied the director's chair for this iteration. Ansel Elgort plays Tony and Rachel Zegler makes her on-screen debut as Maria. Rita Moreno makes a return, moving from the role of Anita in the 1961 version to the role of Valentina. The rest of the cast is filled with experienced Broadway performers. Unlike 1961 the Puerto Rican characters are not played by white people, but instead by Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic actors.

Ansel Elgort was a horrible casting decision and Spielberg did not do his duty as a director to get a solid performance out of Elgort. Elgort delivered a fantastic performance in The Fault in Our Stars early in his career. He has tried his hand at a music career. Baby Driver was the last significant project I saw him in, but that role required minimal acting as he had only a handful of lines. Every single dialog scene with Tony drags on. Spielberg often frames his shots of Tony and Maria as individual close-ups. Zegler’s face portrays lots of emotion and her lines are delivered with passion. The camera switches to a close-up of Tony and all of the energy of the scene is sucked out as we get nothing from Elgort’s face and his lines are delivered flatter than a day-old soda.

The more classic stories are adapted, the more the flaws present themselves. The timeline of the Romeo and Juliette love story is very short, yet they choose to die for each other. West Side Story was originally conceived and now updated by a group of white men trying to show the Puerto Rican experience in New York City. It was problematic in the 60s and it is even more so now. I am not an expert in Puerto Rico or the gentrification of New York City, but neither are the writers of this musical. Past casting mistakes are addressed but there are still questionable decisions. Zegler sticks out when you look at the rest of the Puerto Rican cast; Anita is much darker-skinned than Maria. Rachel Zegler’s parents are of Columbian and Polish descent. It is a bold move to not cast a Puerto Rican in one of the most famous Puerto Rican roles in all of Broadway. Perhaps both leads were miscast, but for different reasons.

If you can get past Elgort’s energy-zapping performance, the rest of the film is a great adaptation of a Broadway musical to the big screen. The West Side neighborhood that it takes place in is being torn down building by building. Rubble is adjacent to functioning stores. A depth that is unachievable on stage is added and the film feels like an immersive journey into this neighborhood. Spielberg, when not focused on close-ups of faces, is great behind the camera as always. The neighborhood feels like the antagonistic character that it is.

I am not familiar enough with the original musical to know what songs were updated for the film. A low point is Tony singing “Maria”, as you might expect from the rest of his performance. In a year where Into the Heights was released, West Side Story had an uphill battle. There is no denying this is the second-best New York City, gentrification-focused, film adaptation of a successful Broadway play. I enjoyed seeing this on the big screen, but few others did as it only captured $10M domestically in its opening weekend. It will be coming to streaming at some point, and that might be the place to see it. You can also pause the film and make your own intermission, something missing during its nearly three-hour run time and present in the stage version. The stage production puts the intermission after the big fight scene and you should too. Give yourself a few minutes to sit with what happens up to that point in the film.

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