Review: Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story

Spielberg’s take on the 1961-classic becomes the story of two awful people who have known each other all of five minutes accidentally getting their closest friends and family killed.

There are more people dancing down the aisles of their local supermarkets than in screenings of this latest Spielberg. Source: Press Disney UK

2022 was always going to offer a strange Oscar season. After last year’s viewing figures plummeted to an all-time low, the Academy are scrambling to engage your eyeballs by any means necessary. Those methods range from the removal of lower-profile categories from the lengthy ceremony (including Editing, ironically), to the introduction of a “fan favourite” award voted for by Twitter’s most rational minds. At the time of writing Spider-Man: No Way Homeleads the poll, unsurprising given its overwhelming box-office dominance (its US gross alone was more than double that of second-placed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings). That leaves the Academy caught between desperately chasing ratings and being horribly out of touch, having largely forgotten to acknowledge the only film anyone actually watched last year because they were too busy showering nominations on the critical flop Don’t Look Up and box-office bomb West Side Story.

To be fair to Steven Spielberg, that poor performance is reportedly more a reflection on the reluctance of older viewers (a key demographic for West Side Story) to return to cinemas than the quality of the film. He has made a fine adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical, but it is safe to say there are more people dancing down the aisles of their local supermarkets than in screenings of his latest spectacle. It then landed on Disney+ at the start of March, informing people that this movie a) exists and b) is worthy of some of the more technical Oscars they won’t see handed out on the night. The production design for example provides the perfect backdrop for this Shakespearean story of warring gangs in 1950s New York: the Puerto Rican sharks and white Jets, thrown into a tailspin after the former’s Maria (Rachel Zegler) and latter’s Tony (Ansel Elgort) fall in the kind of love that makes you spontaneously burst into song and then die.

The remake comes 60 years after Robert Wise’s classic version and naturally it updates the casting, having Latino actors plays the Puerto Ricans as opposed to white actors in makeup circa 1961. The script by playwright Tony Kushner goes one step further in emphasising the Jets’ racism for a modern audience, including a sympathetic police presence and misplaced anger about gentrification. As relevant as they are, those themes are already implicit in the story. We do not have to be told that the Jets are bigots any more than we would misinterpret that fact in the original. The lyrics speak for themselves (“Every Puerto Rican’s a lousy chicken”), the turf war a proxy for racist violence. That didacticism takes us out of the story and the period, for which the cinematography must share the blame. The high contrast and heavy lens flare make the picture appear artificial at best and cheap at worst, particularly an ill-advised inter-gang mixer (a “social experiment” apparently) that resembles something out of High School Musical

While it lacks grit visually, West Side Story misses the mark emotionally. The story poses an interesting challenge, because if the central relationship fails to convince then the whole thing falls apart. Rather than a tale of love transcending hatred and division, it becomes the story of two selfish people who have known each other all of five minutes accidentally getting their closest friends and family killed. Spielberg’s version falls into that trap, the star-crossed lovers failing to generate the sparks required to convince us they even like each other that much, let alone enough to ignite the powder keg of gang warfare or immediately forgive him for murdering her brother. The terrific Zegler is constantly bumping into Elgort’s chemistry blockade, his Tony a disappointingly dreary presence who is not terrible so much as terribly miscast. Fortunately, the casting problems end there, with stunning work from Mike Faist as Riff and Ariana DeBose as Anita. Her number ‘America’ is always the showstopper and DeBose rises to the occasion.

West Side Story shines in those moments, the camera swirling in delight at the balletic dance sequences and character-driven choreography. The music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are the film’s indestructible foundation, from the syncopated jazz of ‘Something’s Coming’ to the lyrical beauty of ‘Maria’ (“Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”), reminding us of the recently departed Sondheim’s genius even at the start of his storied career. The songs, choreo and costumes snap together like so many dancers’ fingers, imbuing the dance-fighting of ‘Cool’ with unmistakable Spielbergian kineticism. Yet for all that motion the movie never moves, and despite all the Jets it seldom soars. Although 2.5 hours long it somehow seems hurried, whisking us from set piece to set piece without allowing key story points to breathe. A sense of sanitisation further stifles the drama, even cutting away from potentially emotional moments before the grief has had time to sink in.

Tony aside, all the ingredients are in place: impressive production, timeless musical numbers and Spielberg at the helm, with his populist credentials and endless sense of wonder. What is missing is the heart, the investment in the story so crucial to the barbed-wire drama of West Side Story. All of which is irrelevant to the Academy, who ring-fence certain actors and directors while relegating the technical teams who brought this film to life. That makes the Best Picture race (or “Fan’s Least Favourite” as it should now be known) hard to predict, but one thing is for certain: it will not be winning any Tony awards. 

Dan Meier is a freelance writer, editor and critic based in London.

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