Yet another reimagining of a Hollywood classic, Spielberg tackles Sondheim in his retelling of West Side Story. Amelia Gibbs reviews.
Whenever Hollywood churns out another remake of a beloved classic, it’s impossible not to be at least a little sceptical of what the newer version may bring (other than cash in the pockets of big-time producers). More often than not there seems to be little artistic justification for the rehashing of an already-cherished movie.
But, in the case of West Side Story, what Steven Spielberg’s reimagining does achieve is the necessary correction of some of the previous film’s timely ignorances. The most significant of which being the casting of Rachel Zegler as our Latina heroine Maria, who’s previous iteration by American actress Natalie Wood makes for now-uncomfortable viewing of the 1961 film.
And it’s Zegler who really shines in this film. A high schooler at the time of her casting, Zegler acts naturally with her cohort and perfectly balances her character’s innocence and charm, making for a remarkably un-annoying Maria despite the character’s naivety. Vocally, Zegler can be both powerful and soft when she needs to be and leaves the audience with nothing left to be desired, navigating the music almost perfectly. Going on to star as Snow White in another upcoming classic-retelling, Zegler is, undoubtedly, the breakout star of the year.
the story is no longer classic enough to hold Shakespearian gravitas nor modern enough to be truly relatable
The same sadly cannot be said for her co-star, Ansel Elgort, who’s Tony lacks the charisma to bring likeability to his character and who’s acting occasionally crosses the line into the melodramatic. His voice, while serviceable, doesn’t pack the same punch as Zegler’s, and during duets such as ‘Tonight’ his vocals get lost underneath hers as she out-sings him effortlessly.
One of the largest misgivings that the film has is, unfortunately, the plot. It was, back in the 1950’s, a “modern-day” retelling of Romeo and Juliet, though in the light of the current year the story is no longer classic enough to hold Shakespearian gravitas nor modern enough to be truly relatable for a current audience.
Instead, as a modern viewer, you can’t help but scorn your two heroes for their foolish decisions and tut disapprovingly at their old-fashioned love affair. The film’s saving graces in this area are Mile Fairst’s Riff and Ariana DeBose’s Anita, who’s characters both struggle with very current and relevant social issues and who encourage the audience’s empathy despite their shared stubbornness.
the film would have benefitted if some songs had been left on the cutting-room floor
The film’s opening is one of the best scenes, pulling you straight in with beautiful camera work and convincing set-pieces, and wasting no time to delight with toe-tapping song and dance.
It’s an unfortunate truth, then, that the rest of the film slowly starts to pale in comparison to this first song, and as the musical numbers mercilessly plough on for over 2.5 hours you begin to lose the excitement gained at the very beginning (with the exception of, perhaps, ‘America’).
It seems to me that the film would have benefitted if some songs had been left on the cutting-room floor, which I know would have been very controversial for ardent fans but would have, in my opinion, paced the film better for general moviegoers. Do we really need two Tony solos in the first act? Or a lengthy comedy number about a character who has little bearing on the film’s outcome? In my opinion, no we do not.
So, is the remake that nobody asked for still worth watching? Well, I would say that if you are planning on seeing this film then do so while it’s still in cinemas, as the beautiful cinematography, interesting set pieces, and vibrant choreography will be best enjoyed on a big screen. Fans of the original film will find very little to be disgruntled about and will likely enjoy this shiny new version.
Otherwise, for the average viewer, the biggest draw of the film would be Zegler’s stunning performance as Maria. And while she is almost good enough to warrant a viewing of West Side Story, I’m sure that we will be seeing much more of her in years to come in films that may be more worth your time.
Featured image courtesy of Alex Watkin. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.
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