West Side Story
20th Century Studios
Written by Tony Kushner, Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Ana Isabelle, Corey Stoll, Brian d’Arcy James, Curtiss Cook and Rita Moreno
An adaptation of the 1957 musical, West Side Story explores forbidden love and the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds.
Anyone who knows me personally knows that there are two things that have always been at the top of my list of favorite things. Those two things are Stephen Sondheim musicals and Steven Spielberg movies. So the fact that both of those of things have culminated in the remake of a classic movie musical immediately got my attention.
Unfortunately, it isn’t the perfect pairing I was expecting.
In my opinion, there are four things that make a great movie musical. Those things are the story, the music, the singing and the visual spectacle. If there is one thing that Spielberg will always get right is the visual spectacle. The film looks fantastic. Spielberg’s eye for both the musical numbers and the setting of the film are unmatched. He perfectly captures the time of the story and there are some wonderful nods to the history of the area and how the story reflects the changing demographics of the area. From the close ups to the dance numbers, Spielberg delivers a visual feast for the viewer.
The music is fantastic. The Bernstein score is brilliantly arranged by David Newman and does a wonderful job of transitioning scenes as well as highlighting characters and emotion. The story does a fantastic job of showing the different worlds of these characters and how those world collide in the relationship between Tony (Elgort) and Maria (Zegler). With Spielberg’s direction, both of those things come together brilliantly and the musical numbers are woven naturally into the story which has been expanded to showcase the characters more.
The singing is where I found my biggest struggle with the film. Ariana DeBose steals the movie with her vocal range, dancing and acting. She is a revelation in the film. Rachel Zigler has a soaring, lilting voice that beautifully brings out the character of Maria. Unfortunately, the male singing performances were lacking vocally. Elgort can sing, but he never manages to bring any emotion out of music. The rendition of “Gee Officer Krupke” by the Jets looks great, but the voices are so weak that the song feels stale. The same can be said of the male vocals in “America”.
West Side Story is visual spectacle that delivers on an expanded story, great music and choreography. The female vocals in the film are stunning and connect emotionally with the viewer. The male vocals never really get beyond the level of serviceable and that makes duets feel one sided with the women carrying the songs. The film is definitely worth watching for the experience, but other than the visuals and a few musical numbers, it’s not particularly memorable.