In 1957, Jerome Robbins (concept and choreography), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Leonard Bernstein (music), and Arthur Laurents (book) collaborated to develop Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet story in a decidedly American way. Set in contemporary New York City it is retold in the format that was then sweeping the New York cultural scene—a Broadway musical. The love of the two main characters was still the main plot line, but the decisive force that prevented their union and ultimately caused the tragedy was the battle between rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. By turning it into a musical, the terrific music and sophisticated dancing provided stark emotional contrast to the dark themes of the story.
Despite ten Oscars and its financial success, the movie had its flaws, said Roger Ebert, reviewing this classic much later, in 2004: “West Side Story remains a landmark of musical history. But if the drama had been as edgy as the choreography, if the lead performances had matched Moreno’s fierce concentration, if the gangs had been more dangerous… if the ending had delivered on the pathos and tragedy of the original, there’s no telling what might have resulted.” In short, a musical success, but not so good as a romantic tragedy.
Now fast-forward 50 years or so to the mind of Hollywood’s icon Steven Spielberg. Creator of countless films, he has been nominated for 19 different Oscar awards and taken home four of them. Despite his prolific history, he has always wanted to do a musical; and it so happens that he’s had a tickle for West Side Story for many years. So, with a budget of $100 million, Spielberg gathered his vast technical resources leading to expectations of high movie craftsmanship. As Brian Tallerico (modern day RogerEbert.com) notes: “The camera doesn’t just capture action on a set, it glides with the performers.” A. O. Scott (New York Times) reviewed “It’s a dazzling display of filmmaking craft that also feels raw, unsettled, and alive.”
BUT (you sensed a BUT coming, didn’t you?) the problem is not with the dancing, nor the music. The problem is with the romance and tragedy. In the 1961 version, neither of the lead actors were nominated, although Rita Moreno in the role of Anita received the Oscar for Supporting Actress. Only Ariana DeBose (playing Anita) received a nomination for Supporting Actress and she was inspired! Spielberg brought Moreno back in a new role, Valentina, Tony’s employer and landlord. I can’t say enough good things about Rachel Zegler as Maria. Although she is young and this is her first feature film, she can sing (Natalie Wood, in the original production, was dubbed). She was fun to watch, both emotionally and musically.
But (there’s that word again) the real problem is with Ansel Elgort as Tony. Yes, he is tall and handsome and looks every bit the Pole that he is supposed to represent, but his performance was stiff and cold—even icy—which worked very well for him in Baby Driver. But as Tony, he is supposed to be torn by his roles as former convict, an ethnic minority, ex-leader, and intoxicated romantic. But he’s none of that here and, despite his insistence that he sing his own songs, he can’t really sing either. I’m not alone in this feeling: Tallerico writes, “These characters need to be almost jittery with the adrenaline of youth… Everyone gets that but Elgort.”
So, after all that, go back up several paragraphs and re-read what Roger Ebert wrote about the first West Side Story movie. Replace “Moreno’s” with “DeBose’s” and you pretty much have the same critique of Spielberg’s film. In short, Spielberg delivered us a remake, and updated the technology, but didn’t give us anything new. Maybe the next version will deliver. To quote Tallerico’s review again, (and one of my favorite songs): “Somehow, someday, somewhere!” (3.5 *)
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