An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. (from IMDB)
The latest Hollywood fan favorite to get the remake treatment is the popular musical, West Side Story. With Steven Spielberg - surprisingly - behind the lens on this one (apparently a career-long dream of his to do), you can definitely expect it to be given a pretty professional upgrade. However, if you hate musicals, even having Spielberg at the helm probably won't be enough to change your mind about them.
I'm fickle when it comes to musicals. I've enjoyed movies like La La Land, Hail Caesar, My Fair Lady, Down with Love and Mary Poppins Returns, but I haven't been much of a fan for more dramatic offerings, like Les Miserables or... this new version of West Side Story. I've never seen the original film, or any stage version of this famous play, so really, Spielberg's remake is my first direct experience with the story (aside from pop culture references). Of course, I did hear some controversy over the cast and some plot elements, but I decided to try to give it a fair shake. After all, it's a story set in a bygone era of the mid 1900's, and I am a pretty big fan of movies from this age.
Unfortunately, while West Side Story is set on the streets in the 1950's, it is about as 2020's as you can expect. And while it's a film from 20th Century Studios (AKA formerly 20th Century FOX), it's now officially a Disney-owned production, and those Disney social politics do eek their way into the production. Whether or not it's all Spielberg's choices or some studio tinkering, I don't know, but the end result is undoubtedly trying to appeal to today's wacky social trends.
Before I get on my soap box for more on those topics, I'll address the film as a whole. This story is so famous, you're likely to recognize at least a song or two even if you've never seen a single rendition of West Side Story. I haven't, and I still recognized at least 3 of the featured songs. The casting is mostly tight, with Ansel Elgort playing the lead of Tony, and Rachel Zegler as his forbidden love interest, Maria. There are a lot of Romeo & Juliet vibes here, but it's less about warring families and more a commentary about cultural conflicts and warring street gangs (tomato / tomahto, I suppose). The street gang cast themselves are also pretty solid, with a lot of new, fresh faces leading the packs. Spielberg knows how to wrangle up some reliable talent and this movie is no exception. (I was honestly shocked to hear Ariana DeBose was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Anita, though. I thought she overdid her performance, in my opinion. But to each their own I guess. Maybe I just didn't care much for her character.) David Newman delivers a stage-ready cinematic score that does feel a hair too melodramatic at times, but fits the old school setting of the story. The sets and cinematography are breathtaking; it's amazing how genuinely this movie transports the viewer to the past. (Some of the 50's imagery gave me Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull PTSD, but it was infrequent as this production is leaps and bounds above that previous Spielberg effort.) Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the original West Side Story movie, makes an extended cameo as Valentina, which is a nice way to tie the two productions together (even though this movie is said to be more so based on the original play than the movie.) Overall, the quality is here, no doubt, but like the musical genre itself, it's a truly acquired taste.
Now, for my beefs about the movie, I'll start with some story gripes. Some of the things the characters decide to do seem kind of ridiculous and irrational. It's only worsened when they break into song and debate about it, and it's tough to feel bad about their circumstances when characters are making such idiotic choices. When the drama hits the fan in the last act, it's hard to care about what transpires, especially when some of it is just downright silly, and you know they brought the trouble down on themselves.
And that takes me to the modern social heavyhandedness that comes across in the movie. To be fair, racial tensions are common today, so it's actually a painfully relevant subject, but other things feel painfully out of place, like Iris Menas (a "trans actor") playing a girl named Anybodys who dresses up like one of the boys and tries to be a part of the Jets gang. The guys won't let her because she's a girl (even though she insists she's not), and it's a plot element that continues throughout the entire movie until the end when they sort of accept her, and call her "buddy boy." (Even after the Jets had done some truly terrible things.) It's odd, too, as her story of acceptance doesn't fit into this broken narrative about a couple of gangs who kill and maim because of their hate and intolerance of each other. Was having the story be about racial tensions really not enough? We really needed society's marred confusion over sexual identity to play a part in this? (Let me help you answer that -- it's "no." The answer is "no.")
The content for West Side Story is a little rough at times. It's mostly violence, especially in the last act when things get a little bloody, as well as a bit more language than you might expect. There are some "F" word substitutes (like "motherloving") and 3 uses of the "S" word, which isn't excessive, but there is also quite a few uses of "g*dd*man" and Jesus' name in vain. (Which is par for the course for Spielberg movies.) There is also some racial name-calling, like "spick" for the Puero Ricans, and some remarks about Pollocks are also made. There is no explicit sexual content, but we see a teen boy and a teen girl in bed (he doesn't have a shirt on and she has the sheet pulled up over her chest), implying they just slept together. There's also the aforementioned trans character (which is anything but subtly handled), and an attempted gang rape scene where Anita is getting roughed up by a group of boys (tugged on, pushed around), until it's broken up before anything worse happens. The violence is seldom graphic, but we see a boy with a nail through his ear in one of the early scenes, and the climactic gang fight is pretty rough, with characters sustaining bloody faces and a couple characters dying from knife wounds (and we see the handle sticking out of one of them briefly before another character pulls it out).
The reception for Spielberg's West Side Story has been pretty positive, so there's a good chance it's just not my cup of tea. However, while I think the makings of the classic could be here, it just doesn't quite come together, and modern day social politics muddy what otherwise could have been a more sincere musical remake.
Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not exclusively on content. However, if the content really affects the reviewer's opinion and experience of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's overall rating.
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