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Monday, March 7, 2022

West Side Story (2021)

Spoilers.

Film adaptations of stage musicals always seem to be lesser. There's something about live performance that dazzles and sweeps you along in ways film simply cannot. But even in that light, Steven Spielberg's re-adaptation of West Side Story is still lesser, and can't manage to improve on the one put to screen 50 years ago.

Despite all that money. Money, it turns out, is cold and inanimate and cannot emote to entertain an audience.

It's worth noting that if you're a fan of West Side Story there no reason why you won't get enjoyment out of this one. I know when I love something, I can see any number of adaptations or versions and be happy even if they're mostly not the greatest thing ever, just because I love the story that's being told and love to see the different casts and approaches. I feel that way, in fact, about Romeo and Juliet, and from that perspective, I did have fun watching this version as it was the first time I saw West Side Story since reading Romeo and Juliet. I never realized before exactly how closely this story follows the Shakespeare. But I'm not particularly a fan of West Side Story in itself. Nothing against it, and I've never not enjoyed it, but I never felt any personal attachment. 

And that's why I needed this version to be actively good in order to impress me. Which is why I am far from impressed. Spielberg give it a good ol' Oscar-grab revamping, by spending lots of money and doing nothing creative. He casts stage veterans in bit parts (Brian D'Arcy James is there but doesn't sing???) and tones down the dancing so his Hollywood stars can keep up. Ariana DeBose as Anita was the only main casting that was actively good. She could dance, sing, and act with equal fervor, and stole the show as far as I'm concerned. Rachel Zegler had a nice voice and a good look for Maria, but her characterization felt too restrained to me. Chalk it up to inexperience behind a camera. I have no complaints about the rest—except one. 

Ho hum, here we go...

Ansel Elgort's Tony is every bit as bad as I feared it would be. And I don't dislike Elgort. He just needs the right role to work—and this isn't it. He doesn't have the look. He exudes dopiness rather than romance, and while that can be charming in the right setting (hello Baby Driver) it's a stretch here. I don't get why he was cast. His acting is nothing special either and while he can move well, Tony doesn't need to be a dancer. His singing voice sounded fine, except that there was never any power behind it. He doesn't belt or croon, he's just kind of... there. And the movie seems aware of all this, and attempts to prop him up by giving him more to do via songs that don't belong to him. Yes, they gave him Cool, the best piece in the show, and butchered it so he could have more screen time.

They also wrote in a change where Tony is freshly out of prison where he went after almost beating another kid to death in a rumble. I can see the good intention behind this addition, that it's trying to deepen Tony's character, but instead it undermines a few aspects of the story. It takes his agency, first, because he now no longer left the Jets by his own choice. Then it makes him seem too much a bad guy later—they have him fight Bernardo and beat him, but stop because he is afraid he may kill him... but then of course he does kill him a minute later and it comes across weirdly in this new light. Suddenly the focus is on Tony and his apparent personal disposition for violence rather than a general tragic look at how the gangs' cycle of violence and revenge destroys innocent lives. 

The dancing did have its moments, and I loved the costuming.

Spielberg's visual hand is where the movie finds most of its positives. It's nice to look at, expensive and often pleasantly gritty. Too much lens flare though. (J.J is supposed to copy you, Steve, not the other way round!) Some of it has that shiny CGI look to it—especially the atrocious Cool scene—but elsewhere there are real, and fun sets. I liked the balcony set up quite a lot. And there's one great shot when the gang's meet to rumble. The performance aspect of the dancing doesn't translate as well. The choreography is toned down and location hopping undercuts the songs' energy and momentum... which are usually dulled already due to the "La La Land Syndrome" where the singing is more "realistic" read: not powerful or dynamic at all. It's Broadway style music telling a Shakespearian tragedy; it needs to be larger than life, not toned down.

If there's one thing that sums up this movie's shortcoming, it's that. It sorely lacks dynamics. Both in the musical sense of fluctuating volume, and in the sense of the energy, tension, and passion that a well-assembled and performed piece can bestow on an audience. West Side Story demands dynamic storytelling, but Spielberg sacrificed the energy that a musical can bring through song and dance—cut it up and whittled it down—for the sake of realism. But so what if it's more historically accurate, if it can't make you feel? 

As I sat watching I kept thinking about the high school stage production I saw, and how that show made me feel more than this hundred-million-dollar project. Granted it was a very good high school production, but that should be a low bar for one of the most celebrated film directors ever. Instead, he cranked out yet another expensive, nice-looking, unnecessary bore, and either forgot, or didn't bother to infuse it with passion or life.

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