Review by Sophie Furlong Tighe
Hollywood’s perverse obsession with remaking beloved films has claimed another victim, it seems— West Side Story. There’s much to roll one’s eyes at, before even entering the theatre. Can’t we make new films? Would that be so bad? However, with Tony Kushner (author of Angels in America, among other masterpieces) and Stephen Speilberg as a writer/director team, there is something exciting about it.
West Side Story is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in a 1950s New York City. Instead of Montagues and Capulets, it explores the rivalry between street-gangs Jets and Sharks. The original is famously excellent; it’s hard to mess up, I think.
The biggest question throughout is: why is Ansel Elsgort here? He’s a fine actor (although for some reason he only ever looks bored) and can hold a tune, but in a cast of relative unknowns with classically trained vocal chords, and a clear affinity for musical theatre, he sticks out like a sore thumb. It seems that the way we make movies now is so thoroughly poisoned by the notion of star-power, that at least one big name needed to be attached for it to even be made (even with the Kushner/Spielberg bill). Elgort lacks both the charisma and authority to pull off Tony. This has difficult consequences on the film, with stakes feeling quite silly, and the central romance uncredible.
The plot of West Side Story is, ultimately, really weird! There’s a lot the audience must believe to get on board. One of those things is that Tony is charismatic and interesting enough for Maria to abandon her family for. Harder, still, is that this musical has always asked the audience to sympathise with a white supremicist gang. As well as the obvious improvement that all of the Puerto Rican characters are played by incredibly talented Puerto Rican actors, the film is more willing to be political than its predecessor. We see the addition of a chief of police, less bumbling than the famous Officer Krupke, who pits the gangs against one another, and actively pulls on white supremist sentiments of the Jets to try and control the city. This is far from anachronistic— if anything, it tells the story that was hidden in 1961.
Quibbles aside, Sondheim’s lyrics with Bernstein’s music are just such a treat to watch on the big screen. You can roll your eyes at the big romantic numbers, and wince a little bit at some of the clunkier additional dialogue, but it is nothing short of a joy to see fresh talent performing the likes of America and Officer Krupke in high resolution.