Musicals have always been a part of my life. Not only do I simply love them, but I’ve been in a lot of them. Training in musical theatre for twelve years from the age of six means that I’m very protective over musicals, whether they be on film or on stage. Sadly, when I was in West Side Story with my dance school… I didn’t love it. I don’t know why, I just never loved the songs and I didn’t love the story. It’s safe to say, then, that I was pretty sceptical of this remake, even if it was directed by Steven Spielberg.
If you don’t know by now, West Side Story is a love story. In short, the two protagonists come from opposing gangs in New York City; one is a young man from a white American gang known as The Jets, the other is a young girl who has close ties to the Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks. Of course, that sounds like a recipe for disaster… Because it’s exactly that. In the film, we see what happens when other gang members learn of their relationship, and what unfolds within their love that was doomed from the start.
I have nothing to say to start this off, so I’ll just say I had a decent enough time watching this movie. Putting my misgivings about the musical itself aside, I’d say that Spielberg did a heck of a job here.
Yes, if I were to rate this movie based solely on Spielberg’s direction, the costuming, the cinematography, the camerawork, the use of colour, the choreography and the lighting, it would earn an unquestionable five stars. Not only is the whole production a clear love letter to old Hollywood musicals, it is intentionally stage-y, as it should be. Technically speaking, West Side Story is a masterpiece.
Alas, this is where my bias kicks in. As a musical, you may have noticed that I’ve just never really connected with the story in this one. All of the Sharks vs. Jets stuff is brilliant, and I’d gladly watch an entire movie based purely on that, even without the singing and dancing. The downfall for me is – and has always been – the romance aspect, which is weirdly why so many love it. Though the Tony/Maria scenes looked beautiful and were well put together, they’re just so tedious in my opinion. Bernstein and Sondheim are undoubtedly geniuses, but I can’t deny that their big ensemble numbers far outdo their soft emotional ballads. (No, Somewhere does not count as a soft emotional ballad – it’s a power ballad in every sense of the phrase.)
On the other hand, what’s special here is the crazy amount of talent on display. Ansel Elgort aside (I really need to know why he was chosen for Tony, because I’m baffled), there are so many stand-outs that it’s hard to single anyone out in particular. If I had to though, I’d have to point out that Ariana DeBose is evidently a star and it’s so good to hear that others agree. There’s not enough love going around for Mike Faist as Riff though; he is a true triple-threat and I hope this kick starts a run of really good film roles for him. Oh, and Rita Moreno singing Somewhere made the whole thing worth it.
On the whole, this is filmmaking of the highest calibre. There are no two ways about it. There’s a reason that Spielberg has been nominated for Best Director in every decade since the 70s, and this is proof that he deserved every one of those nods. If only the plot were more engaging and it wasn’t so long, this might be my film of the year…
West Side Story is available to stream on Disney+ in the UK.
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