In West Side Story (2021), Spielberg’s visual magic is back, but is it enough to bring this musical to life?
My theatrical life started when I was much older. So, I was unable to see Spielberg in his prime, I have seen a few of his film in theaters, but his filmography of late, has been somewhat muted based from his earlier work, which is fine, but I always imagined what seeing that Spielberg spark on a big screen for the first time would feel like. And my goodness, does this film prove that yes, at 74 years old, Spielberg still has his magic touch and yes. It feels like magical when it happens on the big screen.
Let’s being with the magic.
The opening of West Side Story immediately sets me back to a time way before. The way Spielberg composes and moves the camera. On towering cranes and with movement simple and smooth and cuts to locked down shots. The blocking and framing evoking a style and sense that makes this feel like a film made in the early 90s. Then the cutting! The editing screams cinema magic with its instant sense of snap and compulsion. To the intense focus of objects or people entering the frame or being exposed by the cut. And then the real magical touch is the sound design and editing that goes along with this all to create the magical Spielberg concoction. A glimmering object, accompanied by a sound effect or cue. He does this as he did it back in the day, with Jurassic Park, with Indiana jones, with E.T. and he does it here, and when all these elements co-exist, it’s hard to be anything but stunned by the beauty of the craft of cinema, and at all these technical crafts being pulled off. If this is Spielberg’s return to form, then I hope the next film comes quickly, because we need more of this.
But is magic enough?
Now based off my previous paragraph you may think my review is going to be glowing throughout and this film is a stellar masterpiece that must be seen by every human alive. Well… unfortunately it’s not…
Death by a thousand Elgort’s
Let’s start with the big one, Ansel Elgort is in this film as the lead protagonist. Now there are reports of him grooming and sexual harassing and assaulting women, I won’t speak to that as I honestly don’t know much about it and would rather other outlets cover that in detail but let’s just put our imagination caps on (they got to be the strongest in the biz, cause Spielberg must’ve worn it the whole damn time of filming) but let’s say he had no allegations out. He is still, by far, the weakest and worst part of this film. It is mind-numbing how bad of a casting choice Ansel is for this role, one he looks like a mid-30’s man at best, his charisma is equal to an unused piece of dry wall that’s in the corner of your house because wait, why is there a piece of drywall in the corner of my house??
His performance here destroys all sense of connection and emotion to this narrative. I’m dumbfounded that Spielberg who has worked with actors in such great degrees of mastery of the art of performance. Decided that… Elgort… was the one to do it. I mean, Spielberg, that was stupid. In all honesty probably the stupidest move of his career. All the moments with Elgort on screen just deflate the entire experience and unfortunately, he’s in all the big moments, especially with Rachel Zegler who tries her best to sell the chemistry between them, but Elgort ruins it.
Rounding out the cast, we got Ariana Debose as the sister-in-law to Zegler and she does great work, with intense energy, and then the breakout performance of this film, is surprisingly, Mike Faist who plays the leader of the sharks, and my goodness. I have never seen this actor before but he absolutely steals the screen every single second he’s on it, honestly, if you could’ve swapped Elgort with this guy, then he would’ve been able to carry the entire emotional weight of the film, because his performance as the leader of the sharks was the highlight of the film narratively because of his fantastic, fantastic performance, the way he uses his physicality to emote, and his voice, and dances, just glorious work.
Let’s get into the narrative and songs of West Side Story. This is my first experience hearing or seeing West Side Story, I have not seen the original film and I’ve never seen the theatrical experience in any form. Now this film uses the original compositions from Leonard Bernstein, and the lyrics from steven Sondheim. And in all honesty, I thought worst case scenario, I would go into this film and find new songs to fall completely in love with since I tend to love musicals. Well. This is gonna be weird, since this is considered one of the greatest musicals. I found the songs. unpleasant. Now obviously art is subjective, so I’m not saying the music or songs are objectively bad, its obvious there is a great deal of craft behind both elements, but my goodness, I think I only enjoyed two songs from this entire piece? And even those are not that great to my ears. I just didn’t connect with of any of the songs, I didn’t feel like they really emoted or dragged me into an emotional state of these characters, and they didn’t connect with me or anything, and they weren’t even pleasant to listen too. Again, not that a song in a musical must be a catchy song, but it at least must be emotive and show character and none of these songs did that at all. In all honesty out of the very few musicals I’ve seen on screen, this is by far the weakest by a gargantuan measure, I have no desire to even re-listen to any songs.
I will say Leonard’s compositions are absolutely stunning with the instrumentation and whistles and snapping and mixture of sound effects. The score itself is a wonderous exaction of the craft but the lyrics and vocals just mute the entire experience into nothing for me. Again, it may just be my taste in music. I’m not saying its garbage, I’m saying, none of it made me feel anything.
Now to wrap this puppy up as it is getting unwieldly. The entire story and arc of this musical is also a fatal flaw, it makes no real sense, and I get it’s a Romeo and Juliet thing, but I mean that doesn’t give it a pass. The storyline has no real sense of purpose or emotionality. I get the racial and social stuff, but none of it felt real or earned or meaningful to me, I know some may, but I think the performances and songs really dragged it all down for me, and the narrative arc is not strong enough to carry any of those elements upward in my opinion. Especially the ending. Things happen at a blistering rate, that makes no emotional character sense, and I was just checked out completely.
And finally lets just spend another second admiring the visuals of this piece, the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoots this on celluloid and with anamorphic lenses and my goodness, it is a visually stunning marvel, I could see the images of this film all day every day, just immaculate visuals.
So, in ending.
West Side Story = 6/10
Spielberg’s cinema magic is back with impressive framing, compositions, visuals, sound editing and mixing, and a score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein that is to die for. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is a career best and is another testament to the beauty of celluloid in our digital age. But, with a troubling cast lead by the maligned Ansel Elgort, who delivers a cardboard performance, and a narrative that is once blistering and empty at the same time and lyrics and songs that just didn’t capture my heart in any way. The film finds its way to be just an average film. Its disappointing to see so much technical marvel being used for a disappointing story.