Released: 26th December 2021
Seen: 15th March 2022
Boxing Day in Australia was when the remake of the musical West Side Story came out to rave reviews but a box office that was somehow a surprising disappointment to people who decided to release the remake of a classic musical a week after one of the most anticipated films of 2021 (that’d be Spider-Man: No Way Home, for those playing the home game).
To the shock of no one who has even a half functioning brain, this was inevitable. While musicals have been getting a lot more critical praise lately, In The Heights kind of showed that they aren’t exactly box office smashes. A combination of “Musical”, “Remake of beloved classic” and “Releasing against Marvel” was an inevitable death knell for the film… though, none of that is why I avoided West Side Story. No, I avoided it because I have a serious problem with the lead actor.
June 19, 2020 was when the first allegation of sexual assault against Ansel Elgort came out, an allegation that was certainly credible enough for me to be concerned about it (even coming with a photo of the accuser and Ansel together). This was followed by a series of women coming forward to accuse him of coming onto them when they were underage and he was 20. Now, obviously, these are allegations (and here’s a good write up of all of them) and Ansel has denied them but when this kind of thing happens it’s up to people to decide how they want to react and I chose to not give my money to West Side Story.
If you did, that’s what works for you but it’s not what works for me and I just decided I wasn’t going to see this… and then it got about half a dozen Oscar nominations and I kinda need to talk about it now since I have that Oscar list to deal with. Fortunately, it’s on Disney Plus so it’s not like I’m increasing box office or anything so… yeah, weird lines to draw but it’s my lines. Anyway, onto the review. Now, to be fair I’m going to judge West Side Story without taking into account this baggage as best I can, but note that the baggage is there and I’m only human.
West Side Story is an adaptation of the 1957 stage musical of the same name (Which also was previously adapted in 1961). The story is one we all know well because it’s basically Romeo and Juliet but in New York with extra racism thrown in. The Jets, a white gang led by Riff (Mike Faist) are in a constant war with the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernando (David Alvarez). The Jet’s former leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) has just gotten out of prison and is trying to avoid trouble, but also wants to hang out with his friends from his old gang who drag him along to a dance.
There Tony meets a girl named Maria (Rachel Zegler) and the two of them immediately fall in love, despite the fact that Maria is Bernando’s brother which means there is a bit of a problem with the sister of a Shark dating someone associated with the Jets. Tony and Maria don’t seem to care though, their love is strong and could overcome anything… you know unless the war between the Jets and the Sharks gets so intense that it destroys several lives. Maybe Anita (Ariana DeBose) can talk some sense into Maria before things go the exact way they have to go because this is Romeo & Juliet, that story doesn’t come with a happy ending attached.
To say that Steven Spielberg knows how to direct a beautiful looking film that flows effortlessly and is firing on all cylinders is such an obvious statement that it almost doesn’t need to be said, but West Side Story is a film which shows that somehow after over 55 films, Steven Spielberg hasn’t lost a single beat. For his debut musical film, Steven decided to tackle one of the most beloved pieces of musical theatre that has already had an adaptation that’s considered one of the best films of all time… and justified the attempt brilliantly. Shocker, I know, one of the greatest film directors of all time is good enough to pull this off – but he does it so well that the elements he pulls together to make this film work are just stunning.
The visuals of West Side Story are absolutely top-notch, from the way the camera moves to the perfect framing of every shot to the ability to effortlessly go between bright glossy musical numbers to dark intense dramatic shots that elevate the material, you can tell that so much effort went into making sure West Side Story was able to look it’s best with modern technology but still feels like it could take place any time. The framing, in particular, is just expert, knowing when to get the good close up on a performer’s face to let them work their magic or to pull back so we can see every single dance step, the visuals are almost scientifically chosen to enhance the story as much as possible and it works.
Of course, one can’t really praise West Side Story without talking about its performers, and most of the performances here are sublime. Rachel Zegler is an absolute goldmine of a discovery, filling Maria with pure warmth and innocence that makes you fall in love with her at about the same speed Tony does. Her voice is angelic and her screen presence is undeniable, to the point where it’s actually viscerally shocking to realise this is her feature film debut. If this is how she introduces herself to the world, the world is not ready for what she’s going to give us in the coming years.
Then there’s the combo of David Alvarez and Mike Faist as Bernardo and Riff respectively who basically have to be the anchors for the main conflict, and they absolutely nail it. Riff is sleazy yet weirdly charming and Bernardo is undeniably cool but could also fuck you up at a moment’s notice if he needs to. Most of the time they’re playing off each other and god damn it do they light up the screen, especially when they dance. Hell, all the Sharks and Jets are pretty damn great, though special note being drawn to the inclusion of iris menas as Anybodys who in this film is a transmale character being played by a trans-non-binary performer. It’s just a lovely little bit of inclusion that they absolutely use to further the story of bigotry that West Side Story revolves around, but also just gives a great performer a chance to shine.
West Side Story as a whole though belongs to Ariana DeBose as Anita, to such an extent that she might win the Oscar for the same role that Rita Moreno won it for when the first film adaptation of West Side Story came out. She is impossible to look away from and displays a talent that cannot be denied. Flowing effortlessly between the comedic, dramatic and musical moments of the character, Ariana DeBose makes damn sure you are going to notice and remember her for this performance because she has put everything into it and deserves every bit of praise she’s been getting and then some. Seriously, her performance of A Boy Like That alone just put the Oscar on her shelf.
And then there’s Ansel… so, putting my problems aside and just judging on the performance alone, he’s the weakest link here. I’m not going to outright say he’s bad, he’s what one might call “Serviceable” if they were feeling generous but the truth is that he’s letting everyone else do the heavy lifting. His performance is surprisingly wooden, borderline expressionless at times and just relying on looks and charm that he is vastly overestimating. As for his singing… oh, how can I put this fairly? He’s not bad, I’ve just heard better in more recent years… specifically when I listened to Glee actor Darren Criss perform these same songs a few years ago. It just feels like Ansel is there for a name brand he didn’t offer and not because he was the best person for the role, indeed the fact that everyone else is basically carrying him through the film is proof that he’s just a liability to West Side Story and that’s before we factor in everything else.
To try and redo West Side Story is one hell of a gamble, but it paid off this time. Spielberg fills his version of West Side Story with passion and energy, correcting some serious issues from previous versions (not a spot of blackface to be seen here) and introducing the world to several amazing performers who are destined to be huge names. If you can get past the huge pile of luggage that comes with the leading man (and I understand those who can’t, it’s why this review only got done because of the Oscars) then this is a genuinely great version of a much-loved play that proves once again that Spielberg can basically do just about anything he wants.