Thursday, December 30, 2021

Steven Spielberg delivers top-rate musical entertainment with West Side Story

In case you aren't aware, West Side Story (originally a Broadway musical in the 1950s and first adapted into film through a 1961 Best Picture-winning feature) is a take-off on Romeo and Juliet set between two street gangs in 1950s New York City. On one side is the Jets, a collection of white teenagers, and on the other side is the Sharks, comprised of Puerto Rican teenagers. The two groups duke it out in the streets with fiery hatred for one another. In the middle of all this conflict, romance blossoms between former Jets leader Tony (Ansel Elgort) and the younger sister of the leader of the Sharks, Maria (Rachel Zegler). Their romance is as forbidden as the passion they feel for one another is unstoppable. This situation produces emotions that run so high they can only be communicated through songs penned by the late Stephen Sondheim. 

Remakes are often such a disappointing hollow shell of familiar classic movies that the prospect of a new take on West Side Story cant help but gear one up to be underwhelmed. Within moments of West Side Story beginning, though, I knew I was in good hands. Nearly 50 years after he helmed Duel, director Steven Spielberg still demonstrates such an impressive command of his camera, which is made apparent through an opening single-take guiding the viewer through decimated remains of an old neighborhood. What used to house families is now being destroyed to make ritzy new domiciles and push out the poor. Without speaking a word, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski quietly unfold the tragic backdrop that inspired the conflict between the Jets and Sharks. 

From there, the commanding visual language of the feature is put to even better use framing the musical numbers. Starting with Dexter Fletcher's Rocketman in 2019, American musicals got over the choppy editing and clumsy camerawork that plagued past modern entries in the genre like The Greatest Showman. Crisp visuals that captured people who could sing and dance, rather than hurriedly darting between big-name movie stars and stunt doubles, became the name of the game. This welcome departure is epitomized in West Side Story, with a cast of Broadway veterans singing and dancing their hearts out with all the emotion they can muster all while Spielberg's precise camera movements capture every detail of this splendid showmanship.

Combining these visual traits with Sondheim's wonderfully detailed lyrics ("You're a Jet with a capital G!" still makes me giggle) makes the opening number of West Side Story not only outstanding but a perfect harbinger of what's to come. Time after time, this movie delivers set pieces that are rich with emotions, mesmerizing cinematography, and incredible choreography. Neither the visuals nor the way the tunes are presented makes any apologies for this being an unabashed musical. On the contrary, Spielberg's take on West Side Story demonstrates the powerful feelings and spectacle that you could only get in this genre.

Even better, screenwriter Tony Kushner keeps finding ingenious ways to make familiar West Side Story tunes fresh again primarily through giving them new backdrops. You may know every lyric to America, but it'll feel brand new thanks to how Kushner ingeniously brings this musical number out into the street of New York City so that visual aids can be used to illustrate the pros and cons of living in the titular country. The underlying brutality of the lyrics in the seemingly comical ditty Dear Officer Krupke, meanwhile, gets reinforced wonderfully through staging this song as something members of the Jets sing to one another in isolation. Rather than rehashing what you already know, West Side Story keeps serving up imaginative interpretations of some of the best musical numbers of all time.

These songs are belted out by an impressive assortment of talented actors, many of them making their feature film debuts. Rachel Zegler, for one, immediately stands out as an instant movie star through her breathtaking singing voice and ability to capture such vivid deep emotion with just a glance. Ariana DeBose, inhabiting the part of Anita, provides similarly unforgettable work while supporting players Mike Faist and David Alvarez are just riveting in their screen presence. As for Ansel Elgort, he's...the weakest link by far in the whole movie. Elgort's got a fine singing voice, but he can't hope to compare to his Broadway vet co-stars. Every time he's paired up with Zegler or Faist, it only reinforces how he's a steep step down from the rest of the cast. 

An underwhelming male lead aside, though, West Side Story is otherwise a fantastic musical, whose greatness is reflected in how even the tiniest details of the production occupied my mind once my screening ended. The use of Spanish dialogue in the screenplay, for instance, is terrific. I love that it's used to not only reflect the interior lives of the Puerto Rican characters but also as a tool of rebellion against authority figures like a cop played by Corey Stoll. Meanwhile, the various sets and practical filming locations for West Side Story are gloriously-realized. No distracting green-screen artifice here, there's a tangibility and depth to the environments that lends instant believability to a story involving people who can't stub their toe without belting out an extended musical number. 

And the colors! West Side Story is unafraid to embrace a wide variety of bright hues in even the most mundane environments. A church date between Maria and Tony involves washing the two characters in streaks of red and blue light while the vividly-colored clothes hanging out to dry in Anita's apartment make any scene set here instantly pleasing to the eyes. Looking on all the things West Side Story does right, it's wonderful how its best parts aren't just nodding to the original (though it is wonderful to see Rita Moreno return as a new version of the character Doc). Though rooted in one of the most famous movie musicals of all time, Steven Spielberg's West Side Story is something that has no problem standing on its own and even suggesting (GASP!) that sometimes, remakes can be quality movies. Perish the thought!

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