West Side Story (2021) - 7/10
I often start review of musicals stating I’m not a musical fan. This isn’t true though, there are some I adore. Only some though. Musicals are chalk and cheese for me. Rocky Horror, The Commitments, Tick Tick… Boom! all amazing. There’s no middle ground though, if I musical isn’t incredible, it’s an unwatchable travesty. West Side Story though, well it might well be my favourite. There’s no question that it’s a great story, with some of the very best songs. What is in question though, is Spielberg’s version any good? I’ll be honest, I wondered if it were needed. The short answer to that is no, but to be fair how many younger viewers would seek out the original unprompted? Maybe not that many, so if this helps West Side Story find a new audience then I’m all for it. To be fair it’d struggle to screw it up. From the opening finger clicking and gorgeous camera angles, I’m all in. The sets are fantastic. The choreography flawless. The colour grade, pure classic Hollywood. It’s bound to have its issues comparing it to the ‘61 version but it holds up. The cast is one obvious comparison and I struggled to warm to Riff (Mike Faist). He’s not bad, it just took me a while to get there, but I did and there’s some good calls elsewhere, especially for a largely unknown cast to film fans. The notable exception is Ansel Elgort who I’ve not seen since he was the near mute ‘Baby’ in Baby Driver, but he’s got a lovely voice and shines here as Tony, apparently with even some live singing on set! No one shines quite as brightly as Rachel Zegler though who’s magnificent as Maria. Listen to interviews with Zegler she’s a ball of positive energy, genuinely excited to have been given this role and it shows in every breath of her performance. Nice too that the Puerto Rican roles are played by Puerto Ricans! With Zegler and Elgort, the star crossed lovers fit brilliantly and light up the screen when they’re together and there are some genuine breathtaking moments that have me smiling like an idiot, but it does feel a little slow in places. The duration although long is only a few minutes longer than the original, but it feels like there’s a little more needless exposition, which loses a little of the magic. It’s not a big problem though. All the tension of the rival gangs still lands brilliantly. Largely driven by Bernardo (David Alvarez) who brings the embattled angst of the downtrodden Puerto Ricans perfectly. He is of course also the main fly in Maria & Tony’s ointment. ‘American’ still packs its comedic punch. Anita (Ariana DeBose) leading the line in my favourite song as DOP Janusz Kaminski gets to flex with some beautiful aerial shots. The snippets of unsubtitled Spanish dialogue that are peppered throughout are a surprising yet welcome addition to this essentially bums-on-seats set piece movie. It’s a brave move that could alienate some, but even though I don’t speak a word, little is lost. If you speak Spanish, I’m sure this is marvellous but the rest of us still get to enjoy the language and the emotion conveyed. It’s definitely a bit grittier, which I suppose is to be expected, but it sticks pretty faithfully to its predecessor… with a couple of minor tweaks, songs shifted, subplots developed. As much I enjoyed it though. More than anything it makes me want to go watch the original again… and play my well worn copy of the soundtrack. Spielberg hasn’t surpassed the original, but it’s still very much worth a watch and I’m a little annoying with myself for not catching it in the cinema.