West Side Story (2021)

Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose

Somewhere, J.J. Abrams left a movie theater, blinking a little bit behind those signature glasses of his, and he murmured to himself, “Gosh…the new West Side Story has a lot of lens flare, doesn’t it?”

I suppose I should feel some gratitude to Steven Spielberg, Janusz Kaminski, and company for making a musical with such devotion to craft. There’s meticulous blocking and planning in all of those athletic shots, the camera moving over the river and through the woods. We’re still a long, long way from Stanley Donen or Vincente Minnelli, but at least it wasn’t shot to be infuriating the way that In the Heights appears to have been shot. The editing chops up far too much of the dancing, but the dancing is not the main focus of what West Side Story ’21 is up to. The movie is about itself, about a recognized myth of West Side Story and about the magic of a moving camera. Again, this is not necessarily the worst thing that could happen to a film. There are some good scenes in here, like the rumble in Act 3, Scene 1, or a meeting of police officers preparing for that fight while we know they’ll show up too late to negate the porblem. There are a number of very pretty images in this movie, which one struggles to find in a mainstream big-budget film in this country anymore. But all it has is very pretty, pretty like porcelain tchotchkes or a crepuscular Instagram feed. Lust and passion are just color palettes in West Side Story, jealousy and vengeance are just flared nostrils, gentrification and rape are just signs that the book has been updated for people who expect to have it lens flared into their reading of the text.

It’s unfair to start with Rachel Zegler, who plays Maria, and Rita Moreno, who plays Doc surrogate Valentina, but West Side Story is about the way that innocent people are punished, so away we go. Zegler has a really lovely voice, crystalline and precise. What she’s doing in this film ranks among the better vocal performances of the past decade; listening to her in West Side Story is like listening to a more Broadway Auli’i Cravalho, with clearly defined sound and bell-like tone. But like the cinematography, it’s mostly pretty for its own sake rather than affecting.

Tonight, tonight

It all began tonight;

I saw you, and the world went away

This is a gorgeous sentiment, and you must believe that Maria is reporting an unnaturally deep feeling in order to believe that she will be able to stomach Tony after what happens in, like, the rest of the movie. There’s a future-seeking in “it all began tonight,” a reminiscence of something yet to come. And then the idea that the world is separated into two categories—”Tony” and “everything else”—ought to be a breathtaking statement of infatuation. So why isn’t there a hint of that emphasis in Zegler’s beautiful but basically uninflected reading?

Take this line again, this time with Josefina Scaglione of the 2009 Broadway revival. The tempo is a little slower, which is no more Zegler’s fault than it is Scaglione’s brainwave, but it makes a difference in what Scaglione can emphasize.

Scaglione and Zegler take “began tonight” similarly, although Scaglione offers more contrast; Scaglione slurs “saw you” where Zegler enunciates, and thus Scaglione gives a greater sense of the mixed sensation of Tony’s appearance and Tony’s presence. But the difference is in the strength that Scaglione gives to “away,” the power that she exudes by making it last just a tick longer, finding in the flow of the melody a space to evince the way the world has blown away for Maria, as wind takes the crest of a wave. That stress is missing in Zegler’s work in this line, but it’s also missing in the vast majority of her technically proficient singing throughout the film. The voice is very different, but the effect is like Kathryn Grayson. At a similar age to Zegler, Grayson was just as prim and innocent onscreen, and her voice was just as much a reason to go to the theater, and she was desperately in need of someone with more charisma to share the screen with.

As for Moreno’s Valentina, who replaces the Doc character of previous iterations, she’s a puzzlement to me. One of the most important elements of West Side Story is that the adults are absent, clueless, or worse; it’s why “Gee, Officer Krupke” is essential to West Side even if it doesn’t move the plot forward an inch. Yet Valentina is compassionate, sensitive, and empathetic. She has the guts to call the Jets a bunch of rapists after they attack Anita (DeBose) in her store. Compare that to Doc in any version of West Side Story, who is basically just an older version of Glad Hand (Mike Iveson): personally decent but practically ineffectual. Valentina may not be able to change the ultimate result of the story, but it’s not for lack of trying or lack of authority. The problem with Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) and Schrank (Corey Stoll) is that their job is to enforce order rather than foster peace; the problem Glad Hand is that he lacks the seriousness to carry through the school’s toothless programs to integrate. (Where’s Glenn Ford when you need him?) Valentina has authority and weight despite her age, and yet that authority and weight is for the viewer and not for the characters. The only reason Valentina would sing “Somewhere” is because she’s Rita Moreno and she’s associated (for good reason!) with West Side Story and won an Oscar and yadda yadda yadda. But the lyrics stop making sense when an old woman with an established livelihood sings them rather than two screwed up kids wishing desperately for an escape from their love’s windowless concrete cell.

This incentive to play the hits rather than really make something new is apparent in the writing as well. Tony Kushner’s developed this bad habit of preaching through characters…take Lincoln, and its really weird opening scene. I’m still so confused why a soldier would be able to quote the Gettysburg Address off book in 1865, while the rest of the movie is so based in historical figures that it has more speaking characters than Dune. Something like that is going on in West Side Story as well, because you can feel the pressure the film is under to talk about gentrification and sexual assault and the resentment that feeds racism. (The ’61 West Side Story, incidentally, does a far better job with the Jets attacking Anita than this version does. It is much more frightening and the film lets our eyes do the work of condemnation rather than relying on a character to say what we just saw. Anita is the main character of that scene in 1961, and in 2021 somehow it’s more about the white boys.) West Side Story is kind of interesting when we come to understand that the territory the Jets are bleeding and fighting for is territory which isn’t going to belong to white kids or Puerto Rican kids in a few months; it’ll belong to a wealthier class of New Yorker using this part of the city for leisure rather than necessity. It stops being interesting when it has to say this stuff out loud in the voices of characters who wouldn’t really think about the world this way. It is—is that the sound of a very angry recitation of the witticisms of HMS Pinafore I hear?—encroaching on Sorkin’s turf. Kushner has a far greater track record, obviously, but twenty years after Main Street Sinclair Lewis was publishing Bethel Merriday. Even the best can’t endure forever.

All the same, West Side Story could keep all of this messiness and still work if it had something it’s missing desperately. It could have the hamfisted political discussions, the weird insertion of Rita Moreno for the sake of fanservice, the polite vocals, the invasive cinematography…if its actors just had some presence. David Alvarez and Mike Faist, playing Bernardo and Riff, have moments of individual quality. Yet Bernardo is reduced to a hot guy lashing out as opposed to someone with some nationalistic fervor, and Mike Faist is still playing Morris Delancey from Newsies. Ariana DeBose is fine but basically unexceptional; Zegler is good but basically unexceptional. This leaves us with Ansel Elgort, who reminds us why James Dean was so special. It’s one thing to act like you’re disaffected and unattached; it’s another thing entirely to make that interesting for people to watch, and another thing beyond that to make that isolation a good performance. There’s Elgort the person, which is definitely its own issue, and there’s Elgort the performer. I’ll be nice and separate the two, but it seems like the performer was recently brought out of a coma just in time for him to rumble dully through the musical numbers. Tony’s just another mumbling ‘hood with a backstory in this West Side Story, and Maria’s just another nice girl with a taste for bad boys in this West Side Story, but boy does it have several colors and did you notice the sign for Lincoln Center in the middle of that crane shot? Wowee!

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