“West Side Story” Rant: Not Hot, Not Rot— Just “ISH”

By: Marco Camuzzi

I’d like to say that I loved West Side Story, but instead, I just felt meh. I didn’t want to feel that way; no one more than me wanted to see this film succeed. I love West Side Story. The original is my favorite musical movie and one of the best musicals ever written. The idea of taking Bernstein music, Sondheim lyrics, and Speilberg directing should have been a recipe for success…but it felt flat, flatter than champagne the day after New Year’s.

For those readers who have been living in their parents’ basement for all their lives and haven’t thought about culture or the outside world, here is a basic recap with spoilers because you don’t deserve a spoiler-free review of a story that is three times older than you are. West Side Story is a musical that takes place in late 1950s Manhattan. It is a modern musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s stupidest love story Romeo and Juliet, or as I like to call it…the foundation for every crappy Hallmark movie ever made. Two gangs exist in the prison that is the West Side: The Jets, which is made up of all the rejected white American boys, and the Sharks, the gang of Puerto Rican immigrants (who most of the time are played by actors who are not even Latino). The Jets are led by the delinquent bum Riff, the Sharks by overprotective Bernardo. These gangs loathe each other because 1950s society was delusional and stupid and said they had to. Amid this chaos, two star-crossed lovers appear: Tony, the white American boy and childhood best friend of Riff, and Maria, the little sister of Bernardo who has come to America for a new life with him. The two lovers meet at a dance and instantly connect, but are dragged apart by Riff and Bernardo. Tony, gushing like a bleeding artery, has to see Maria, goes to her fire escape, and they sing together about how the world feels perfect when they are together. You get it. Romeo and Juliet set in 1950’s New York. Overall, even though sappy, this 1961 version gets a HOT from me cause it’s just classic. But how does the new film compare?

Photo of both renditions of West Side Story, new (left), and old, (right)

There are many reasons to say why the new film had problems, and I am not saying it was bad, but it wasn’t fantastic. The original film was revolutionary, breaking away from the over-glamourized and euphoric musicals of the 1950s. Its story was not happy and considered forward for the time. Speilberg’s remake, however, didn’t capture that magic. And, honestly, he’s to blame. The music and lyrics have been proven successful time and time again on stage and film; the only differences in the new version are the scenes added by Speilberg. 

What did I find good? There was actually character development in this movie. Good job, Hollywood! Maybe the gods do actually listen to what we know-nothing plebian folks want out of characters. There is far more backstory in this version for characters such as Tony. In the original movie and musical he is just a pretty face who dies. How very 1960s. Regardless of how dumb the Hollywood elite are, they know all the consumers want is good writing with excellent character development. 

Maria, too, was well-played. Though typically portrayed as an ingénue, the outstanding Rachel Zegler brought her to life. The writing and character background made Maria a more individualistic and self-reliant person. Maria doesn’t depend on Tony. Tony is there not because she needs him, but because she wants him there. Fans of the 1961 version might be imploding right now, as Maria has changed so much. But this is a good change. This character shift makes me want to listen to her, not throw up my liver when she opens her mouth and talks (as I couldn’t help but do in the original movie). On the fire scale, I give it a HOT. My organs are still intact, and I wanted to see Maria in every scene.

Tony, played by the dashing Ansel Elgort, also did an amazing job. What a stunning match; he was perfect and pretty. I was so happy to see that he had a backstory in this version. The new Tony is a fighter and on probation. His edgier character has actual stakes in the story, and I care more when he dies because he has stronger connections and a more grounded character. I rate him a HOT because he actually made me want to play this role without trying to be better than him—a first, given my competitive nature and tendency to blow people away on the stage. Yes, I am just that good. 

The cinematography, too, was beautiful. The way the shots were composed really helped put the audience in the action especially in the fight scenes and dance-offs. The amazing symbolism in the scene “Tonight” shows the cleverness of every shot. Showing Maria behind bars until the climax of the song was genius. This continues throughout the film and creates a dynamic feel. I give it a Hot. 

The dancing was also sharp and fresh. I was really glad that there was less ballet this time. The choreography in this version showed a more aggressive style and had more jazz elements in it. I give it a HOT, because, for once, I thought it matched the show!

On to the soundtrack and numbers: for once, thank goodness, the orchestra is big and full, and I can actually feel the music. I can actually feel the music because it hasn’t been squashed in a computer by some unmusical technician just trying to get money to eat Taco Bell. When I heard the prologue start, I was so excited. The music came to life; it was a complete sensory overload. When Elgort started to sing “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” I died a little inside; it was fantastic. The phrasing was excellent, really pushing and drawing out those long beautiful notes. The vibrato was used efficiently and sparingly, creating an effect that I haven’t heard in ages. Let me gush! Songs like “America” weren’t annoying like in the original with its overuse of the accent. (Fun fact, when you sing your accent lessens because of the common vowel shapes used to sing.) When Zegler sang “Tonight” and hit the high notes, I screamed out loud. It was Heaven. No one in film can compete with the beauty of that note. “Officer Krupke” WAS MY FAVORITE number, I could watch that scene 100 times; it was that good! Great chemistry between the Jets and excellent choreo that brought the dull, mundane number into a funny and action-packed scene! 

Photo of West Side Story (2021)

The “Tonight” reprise did feel a little dull, like a Toyota Prius. This large number felt messy; I blame the sound tech getting Taco Bell! “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love” almost made me cry. The aggressiveness of the high notes from Maria really made the song pop in a way that almost seemed impossible for anyone to achieve. The soundtrack does have some oddities to it though. Some people have a very strange and heavily noticeable auto-tune on their voice. $100 million dollar budget and I can hear this? Riff, played by Mike Faist, sounds auto-tuned in certain scenes…AND HE’S FROM BROADWAY!!!!! I’ve been trying to figure out if this was something purposeful. Or maybe the Taco Bell tech hates him…point is I HATED IT!!!! The album gets a Mostly-HOT, the only reason it’s not “ish” is because Zegler and the orchestra were so good!

That’s where the good points end, though, and the bad begins.  

THE ONE CHARACTER I LOATHE MORE THAN SHAKESPEARE’S HALLMARK SPECIALS……IS BERNARDO!!! 

Every time he opened his mouth, I begged for him to shut up. He’s so obsessive, annoying, spiteful, and vengeful. In every scene he has a chip on his shoulder and no growth as a character or person, but so much extra screen time! The rumble scene where he starts getting really aggressive with Tony for no reason just got annoying. In general, he is overly aggressive and gets pissed off at everyone. His death was an actual blessing because he wouldn’t be talking anymore! His anger is his only trait, and it never changes. He is a pure example of what I disliked about the film, extra unnecessary scenes and dialogue that don’t bring anything great or new to the story. 

Yes, Tony and Maria are better in this version because of the extra scenes, but not all of Spielberg’s additions were good. While the character development was nice, he tried way too hard in some scenes to add more words to make us feel something. I swear, it’s like getting that doughnut from Krispy Kreme. One is just right and you feel good, but the first bite of the next makes you wanna vomit, but you shove it down your throat anyway and start hating doughnuts! This was how I felt about all his scenes. Every addition was trying too hard and felt so forced that it ruined the flow of the movie for me. 

Not to mention, the Spanish made no sense. It’s like Speilberg walked in and said “Add more Spanish lines!” and so some intern went to Google Translate and started adding Spanish wherever they could to hit a quota. This script feels so plagiarized it should surely be sent to the “highest court”: Shorecrest’s Honor Council. Just the treatment of Latinos in this film in general really seems questionable. Remember these Hollywood people are the same ones who get on their high horse at the Oscars every year and make speeches about how we are all racist and must do better. Well, Hollywood….WHY ARE MARIA AND FRIENDS CLEANING LADIES? In the original from 1961, they were skilled seamstresses. Now they get a demotion to unskilled cleaning ladies? How can 1961 see Latinos better than 2021? I give the script a MEGA-ROT. It was so infuriating! This stereotyping brought down the entire film.

Photo of West Side Story (2021)

So to sum it all up…the music is fabulous.  Finally, a movie score that feels big and grand like it is supposed to be! The casting was great; the leads were perfect fits for their roles, though I wish we got more Maria and Tony rather than all the Bernado stuff. The dancing was all amazing, sharp and crisp, a clear homage to the original style of dance in West Side while still being fresh. But would I pay money to see this again in theaters? NO. Would I buy it on Blu-ray? Maybe, but only to complete my West Side collection. Would I complain if someone played it for me? No! Overall the film had some excellent bits and then some other stuff that made me wanna vomit and leave the theater. I give the film an “ISH.”

XOXO,
Your Drama-Addict

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