Musical Monday: West Side Story (2021)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

wss4This week’s musical:
West Side Story (2021) – Musical #693

Studio:
20th Century Studio

Director:
Steven Spielberg

Starring:
Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez, Ariana DeBose, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Rita Moreno, Ezra Menas

The Sharks: David Avilés Morales, Sebastian Serra, Ricardo A. Zayas, Carlos E. Gonzalez, Ricky Ubeda, Andrei Chagas, Adriel Flete, Jacob Guzman, Kelvin Delgado, Carlos Sánchez Falú, Julius Anthony Rubio, Yurel Echezarreta, David Guzman

The Jets: Sean Harrison Jones, Jess LeProtto, Patrick Higgins, Kyle Allen, John Michael Fiumara, Kevin Csolak, Kyle Coffman, Daniel Patrick Russell, Ben Cook, Harrison Coll, Garrett Hawe, Myles Erlick, Julian Elia

Plot:
Set in the west side of New York City, an American gang, the Jets, and a Puerto Rican gang, The Sharks, are trying to claim the streets while their neighborhood is being demolished around them. An American, Tony (Elgort), falls in love with a Puerto Rican, Maria (Zegler), who is also the sister of the Sharks’ gang leader, Bernardo (Alvarez).

Trivia:
• Second film adaptation of the 1957 Broadway musical, “West Side Story.” It is
• First feature-length film of David Alvarez, Rachel Zegler and Josh Andrés Rivera
• The song order in the film is similar to the original Broadway production—including “I Feel Pretty” after “The Rumble” and “Cool” before “The Rumble.” However, like the 1961 film, it moves “Gee, Officer Krupke” before the Rumble.
• Rita Moreno, who was an executive producer of this film and played the character Valentina, was in the 1961 version of WEST SIDE STORY, playing the role of Anita, which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting actress.
• Director Steven Spielberg’s first musical.

Notable Songs:
• “America” performed by Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez
• “Gee, Officer Krupke” performed by Kevin Csolak, John Michael Fiumara, Jess LeProtto, Ben Cook, Myles Erlick, Patrick Higgins, Kyle Allen
• “I Feel Pretty” performed by Rachel Zegler
• “A Boy Like That” performed by Ariana DeBose and Rachel Zegler
• “Maria” performed by Ansel Elgort

west side story4

David Alvarez and Ariana DeBose performing in the “America” number

My review:
I never thought I would watch a musical, wishing that Zac Efron was in the lead.

Or that I’d be yearning for more dancing, more impressive choreography, and brighter colors.

But that’s how I felt while watching the new film adaptation of WEST SIDE STORY (2021).

If you have read this website for any amount of time, you know the 1961 film adaptation was important to my classic film love. Though I grew up on classic films and already enjoyed old movies, it was WEST SIDE STORY (1961) that catapulted me into a musical loving mania. Not only would I say it’s responsible for this “Musical Monday” feature, it’s why Comet Over Hollywood exists. You can read my review of the 1961 film here

Adapted from the 1957 Broadway play, I’ll admit perhaps that some of my feelings about the 2021 adaptation come from being too close to the 1961 film.

As soon as I learned director Steven Spielberg’s film version was in production, I decided I’d go into the film with an open mind. Spielberg is a director that I respect. After all, it’s an adaptation of a play rather than a true remake of a movie. However, leading up to the release of the new adaptation, I felt there was a lot of negativity surrounding the 1961 film and the cast.

To start with the positives: I did mostly enjoy the film. I was interested in seeing the film with Latina and Latino actors in the leads and supporting cast of the Sharks. The storyline is also largely the same as the original. The order of the musical numbers may differ from the 1961 film, but matches the 1957 Broadway musical (with the exception of the placement of “Gee, Officer Krupke.”)

I was blown away by Mike Faist as Riff and David Alvarez as Bernardo, who gave the stand out performances in this film. They are really excellent. Ariana DeBose as Anita was also good and an excellent crier. I also liked Josh Andrés Rivera, who played a bespectacled and more sympathetic Chino.

The best musical number was “America.”

Janusz Kamiński is director Steven Spielberg’s go-to cinematographer. Their earlier collaborations together, including “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” “Minority Report,” “Catch Me If You Can” and “The Terminal” had vibrant color pallets. It seemed that after the early 2000s, he strayed away from this more colorful style, which is reflected in “West Side Story.”

The “America” number harkens back to some that earlier work, which includes bright yellows and reds in the number and performed in a sunny street.

“A Boy Like That” was also excellently performed. I also enjoyed David Newman’s musical arrangement of Leonard Bernstein’s score.

My biggest issues with the film mainly involved the filmmaking (cinematography, script, choreography, direction). I saw the film on Thursday, Dec. 9, and took notes on a receipt (it’s all I had – ha) while I watched the film, which I will summarize here:

wss3

The introduction and The Jets and the Sharks:
I didn’t feel we were adequately introduced to the Jets and the Sharks.

We see the Jets causing trouble for the first several moments, and don’t see the Sharks until they come running up. I second guessed if it was them, “Are those the Sharks or angry neighbors?” I didn’t truly know it was them until David Alvarez as Bernardo made quite an entrance.

While perhaps it may not matter, the Jets and the Sharks seemed to mainly be nameless window dressing. Other than being gang members, we seldom learn their names or learn anything else about them.

We do learn which one Baby John is in the introduction. Diesel is called by name, and we figure out who Ice is after The Rumble. Other than Bernardo, the only name I caught was Chino, who isn’t a member of the Sharks in this film. The character of Anybodys also received more of a spotlight, which was a plus. You can read my feature of the Jets and Sharks performers from the 1961 film here

Dancing:
I admittedly didn’t read much about the film prior to going into it. So since this was marketed as an adaptation of the 1957 Broadway play, I was expecting to see the original choreography by Jerome Robbins, who not only created the dance sequences for WEST SIDE STORY, but also was one of the people behind the story idea.

While Robbins is listed in the credits for choreography, the dances are largely choreographed by Justin Peck. The main choreography I noted by Robbins was at “The Dance at the Gym.”

Since Robbins was fired as co-director mid-way through production of the 1961 film, this felt sad to me. It would have honored his legacy to keep his original dances.

The composition and framing of the dance numbers also felt too close to me, especially in “The Dance at the Gym,” which is traditionally my favorite part. Though there was some good dancing here (from what I could see).

The “America” number was the best dance number of the film.

Colors
My favorite aspect of the 1961 film is how stunningly gorgeous it is visually. The vibrant colors with bright reds, blues, yellows and oranges infused into the set design and the costuming. The way color is used to distinguish the various groups of people against each other. The religious allusions in the “One Hand, One Heart” number. The transition into the “Dance at the Gym” with the swirling colors.

Much of that colorful beauty is lost in this 2021 adaptation. With cinematography by Janusz Kamiński, I kept wondering, “Am I watching MUNICH or BRIDGE OF SPIES?” Like most contemporary film productions, the colors are cold, muted and dark; feeling largely monochromatic with blues, greys, browns and blacks. Our eyes are just fine seeing Technicolor, if contemporary filmmakers would just take a chance and give us some COLOR.

The most vibrant scenes are in “I Feel Pretty” and “America.”

Not as punchy
I’ve always felt that the 1961 film version was brisk feeling, despite running at 2 hours and 36 minutes. This is attributed to punchy, hard-hitting dialogue which would be followed by a song. The 2021 version seemed to drag a bit due to too much dialogue and unnecessary storylines back stories about the lead characters — who knew Bernardo was a boxer and Tony went to jail? I felt too many words diluted some of the most powerful scenes, such as Maria’s final speech.

Some of the songs seemed more subdued as well, and I wanted more. Much of the humor was also lost or eliminated from this adaptation.

In summary
The 2021 musical adaptation is similar in storyline not only to the 1961 film, but also the 1957 Broadway musical source material. All three are inspired by “Romeo and Juliet,” but instead deal with racism and gangs in New York City.

I was confident that a director of Steven Spielberg’s caliber would handle this new adaptation well. But perhaps someone else should have taken this on as a director or at least Spielberg should have had a different cinematographer.

Not doing a musical before isn’t the reason; director Carol Reed had never done a musical, but expertly filmed OLIVER! (1968), which was thanks to his theatrical background.

The recent musical LA LA LAND (2016) showed that vibrant colors and bold dance numbers can still occur in contemporary films. Perhaps a cinematographer like Linus Sandgren would have been better suited for WEST SIDE STORY.

While I was watching, I also couldn’t help thinking who else could have played Tony, perhaps Zac Efron or Harry Styles?

I did try to have an open mind. And perhaps my sour feelings come from the catty remarks I read about the 1961 film, in regard to dubbing, actors, etc. I have never seen so much negativity about the original vs. the remake with any other recent film remake.

I wanted to like it and share a 100% positive review here. While I won’t say I didn’t enjoy it … I left the film feeling overall hollow.

I plan on seeing WEST SIDE STORY (2021) for a second time soon. If my feelings change, I’ll update this review with a new time stamp.

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2 thoughts on “Musical Monday: West Side Story (2021)

  1. I thought Tony ( Andes Ergot) was better than Beemer in the 1961 movie!! His acting was excellent. He did it all, dancing and singing.
    I did prefer the graceful dancing in the beginning of both gangs better in the old version.
    No one can argue this new version was more authentic.
    I liked both movies.

    Like

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