Friday, March 4, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: West Side Story (2021)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!  Time for the second consecutive Steven Spielberg movie review....

Today I'm talking about the 2021 remake of the legendary classic West Side Story, a notion that was admittedly a hard sell for me, being such a fan of the 1961 version.  For devotees of the original film, this new version is more easily enjoyed if you think of it like an updated stage revival of a classic, rather than a remake designed to replace the old one.  I found myself thinking of the original film often, particularly during my favorite musical numbers and the more emotional scenes, comparing these acting and choreography choices to those.  Thus my enjoyment of this movie was tempered - like I said, redoing such a seminal piece of filmmaking is a tough sell. 

First let's look at the positives.  Set in the late 1950s with a song order closer to the Broadway show, this movie hits some new thematic notes in its frankness about racial tensions and the immigrant experience.  Where the 1961 version had to keep things a bit sanitized and appropriate for all ages, this script was afforded the chance to explore these themes with a bit more honesty, through a 2021 lens.  For example the events of the story take place against the backdrop of a major New York City gentrification project, as the rough Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhoods over which these gangs are fighting are being torn down to make room for Lincoln Center and other new developments.  The relationship between Bernardo and Anita is also given a feminist twist as he pressures her to move back to Puerto Rico with him and have a bunch of kids, while she wants to stay in New York City and launch a tailoring business; its this exchange that leads into the famous "America" number, taking place in the streets instead of on a rooftop.  I found it refreshing to see these new twists on the familiar story, and especially to know that every Hispanic character in the film was actually played by someone of Hispanic heritage.  No brown-face needed here, thank Christ.
I found it a nice touch to present the Puerto Rican characters as speaking their native language when alone, and Spielberg even refused to include English subtitles during such exchanges as it would undermine his intent to make the film inclusive to Spanish-speaking audiences.  While I personally don't speak Spanish, I appreciated this choice.  

Also no overdubbing of anyone's vocals.  While the two romantic leads in 1961 were excellent actors, neither was a particularly good singer and so all of their numbers were overdubbed, as were Riff's vocals on "When You're a Jet" (oddly by his fellow Jet, Tucker Smith, who played Ice).  So it was nice to see every actor in this film do their own singing, and particularly inspiring to see Rita Moreno (a female, Puerto Rican version of the Doc character) get a song, still crushing it in her late 80s.

The cinematography is pretty spectacular, with smooth, sweeping camera moves during the songs, making you feel like you're there with the performers and giving it more of a live experience feel at times.  Longtime Spielberg colleague Janusz Kaminski once again earns his reputation as one of the great cinematographers, providing his trademark grainy visuals to give the tough neighborhoods more of a down n' dirty look as compared to the Technicolor richness of the 1961 film.

So where did this film fall short for me?  

As I mentioned, I found it difficult not to conjure images and sounds from the old movie while watching this one; Robert Wise's original is such an iconic work it's tough for me to see anyone but Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as the two romantic leads and even harder not to miss Rita Moreno and George Chakiris as Anita and Bernardo.  And that's not entirely fair to this crop of actors, to be sure.  Ariana DeBose is quite a standout as a more hardnosed, brutally frank Anita, Rachel Zegler is youthful and doe-eyed as Maria, David Alvarez is a brutish Bernardo and Mike Faist is a cast highlight as the wiry, fast-talking Riff.  

Ansel Elgort is serviceable as Tony but in both his case and Bernardo's I found the balance between believable gang dudes and credible romantic figures leaning too far toward the former.  Indeed, this version of Tony just spent a year in prison for almost beating someone to death, which lends him street cred as a former gang leader but does him no favors as far as making us want to root for him and Maria.  In fact, why doesn't this set off any red flags when he tells her this stuff?  "Hey I was one punch away from killing a person, wanna dance?"  Beymer's Tony didn't exactly smack of "Jets co-founder with a rep bigger than the whole West Side," but at least he was instantly likable and his immediate chemistry with Maria felt earned and palpable.  I unfortunately didn't feel much of that between Elgort and Zegler, and considering we're supposed to buy them as a couple planning to run away together after knowing each other exactly two days, the chemistry thing is pretty important.  

In the case of Bernardo we can definitely buy David Alvarez as a boxer who could slap down any challenge to his position as the Sharks leader, but he was missing George Chakiris's irresistible charm.  While Chakiris was built too much like a dancer to be believable as a street thug, his off-the-charts charisma more than made up for that; all eyes were on him whenever he was onscreen.  Likewise his chemistry with Rita Moreno felt real and effortless - for me those two stole that movie, their Supporting Actor Oscars well-deserved.  Regardless, it's a delicate balancing act for characters like Tony and Bernardo, who need to be likable tough guys we can see attracting women like Maria and Anita.  In a stylized presentation like this, I found it more effective for those two characters to lean more charismatic and romantic than tough and angry. 

Likewise I felt there wasn't a strong enough connection between Tony and Riff here.  The original film showed their friendship as pretty unshakable despite Tony's feeling that he's outgrown the street gang life.  Riff is saddened by this but undeterred in trying to win him back into the gang.  In this film there's so much tension between the characters, so much resentment on Riff's part, that it's almost hard to imagine Tony being moved to kill another man to avenge Riff's death.  The "Be Cool" number in fact was rewritten to center around Tony's attempt to keep Riff's newly purchased gun away from him and prevent a massacre.

One area I found the acting perhaps a little too controlled was in the film's most tragic moments.  Anita's reaction to Bernardo's death, Maria's reaction to the knowledge that Tony killed him, and later to Tony's death, for me all lacked the gut-wrenching despair that at least Natalie Wood's performance conveyed.  The final scene in the '61 film is heartbreaking as Maria waves the gun around and asks Chino how many bullets are left, having been pushed toward the same bloodthirsty hatred as the two gangs.  Zegler's performance in this scene is strong but it didn't move me the same way; there was a certain arm's-length detachment in the acting choices.

All this must sound like I didn't enjoy the film, but in fact I admired it quite well.  It was a very well-made update whose intentions were most certainly in the right place, and it didn't come off as an attempt to render the old film obsolete.  But it sadly didn't quite present enough freshness to allow me to view it as a standalone project; the 1961 film casts such a big shadow it was always in the back of my mind as I viewed this one.

I give West Side Story '21 ***1/2 out of ****.

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