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West Side Story

****
2021

‘…a genuine crowd-pleaser in search of a crowd…’

Widely derided as a distorting fun-house mirror in which we see the current crop of awards favourites, the 2022 Golden Globes may well be on the naughty step in the eyes of the world’s media, so it was inevitable that this year’s choices played safe; we’d certainly expect best actor to be a slog between Will Smith and Andrew Garfield, that Belfast and Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos would be in contention, and that Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story would pick up for awards; despite a lack of box-office momentum, the reworking of the classic musical was always likely to thrill the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, yet their choice might just correct a specific wrong…

With films being routinely and untimely yanked out of the cinemas in the hope that the next blockbuster will click with a disease-ravaged public, West Side Story never had much of a chance to connect, coming out a few days before Spiderman, the unanimous choice of 2021’s ultra-selective audience. There’s little chance of a word-of-mouth big-screen revival given that the film is likely to appear on streaming later his month (Jan 2022), so any awards tractions seems unlikely to benefit cinemas. And yet while it has faults, this new version of the Bernstein and Sondheim property has plenty to recommend it, namely the music, the exuberant dancing, and a woke revision of the story that at least suggests some serious thought went into it.

Essentially, it’s Romeo and Juliet updated to the gangs of New York. On the island of Manhattan circa 1957, the Jets square up to the Sharks, while the area’s on-going gentrification threatens the existence of them with the end of a wrecking ball. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is now an ex-con, having served a year in the pen, and seems much older than the doe-eyed Maria (Rachel Zegler) who he meets at a dance. The course of true love never runs true, and Tony ends up killing Maria’s brother in a rumble in a salt warehouse, and you probably already know how this one turns out. It’s hard to think of a more copper-bottomed property that West Side Story, with every song a home run, but while this new version can’t match the shock of the street choreography featured in the 1961 Robert Wise Oscar-winner, it certainly offers lots of colour, energy and showmanship to burn.

Elgort’s smirking presence doesn’t seem like a good match for Tony, but it’s hard to fault the support from Ariana DeBose as Anita or David Alvarez as Bernardo, and it’s a bonus to have Rita Moreno return in a different role. Not all the changes in Tony Kushner’s script work, and the wit is very much confined to Sondheim’s lyrics rather than the stuffy dialogue, but the vigorous staging of rousing numbers like Officer Krupke should please purists. 2022’s West Side Story attempts to correct some of the cultural assumptions of the original stage and screen property, and even if it ends up as just another entry in that’s year’s trash-pile of musicals audiences didn’t turn out for (In the Heights, Dear Evan Hansen) , it’s a genuine crowd-pleaser in search of a crowd, and the revival in the film’s fortunes might as well start somewhere.

Thanks to the Walt Disney Company for access to West Side Story, in cinemas now.

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  1. Enjoyed this up to a point. But the point was – why bother? The original was a stunner. Even if you saw it today you would admire the choreography. Ansel is a) miscast and b) can’t sing. But the girl I thought was very good. The update was no update, it was still set in the 1950s with glib references, and all we got was how much tougher life was. Good luck on Spielberg getting an Oscar because the box office for this may well result in this being his last picture.

    • I doubt that; I felt that the director was trying to please various factions with this, but he’s too ingrained in Hollywood to get much bad press as a result. As noted elsewhere, I think they needed two up and coming film stars in the leads, like DiCaprio and Danes, and Ansel didn’t solve that problem at all. The other leads are fine, but it’s Romeo and Juliet, and we need them to be balanced for the story to land. And they’ll never beat the groundbreaking feel of the original film using real locations; I’m fed up with this candy-coloured world of CGI.

  2. I read a review of this in the Wall Street Journal that made a related point to yours – essentially calling it a wonderful movie made for an audience that no longer exists–she was specifically talking about her experience seeing it onscreen.

    I know it’s a classic, but the original never really did anything for me. I can’t really put my finger on why.

    • Both movies suffer from not nailing the leads; I prefer the Romeo+ Juliet with DiCaprio and Danes, it worked better than either because the lovers are played by stars with equal weighting. You need that to make this story really land. Having said that, you cannot go too far wrong with this music…but what does it mean to hip kids today with their modern Belgian boom-rave musics and jangly bells?

  3. The great new Story from the West Side is now Golden Globes awarded and that’s good news to me. Hope it will boost the audience to discover the film in theaters. I’m probably too optimistic.

    • Happy to see optimism and positivity. I similarly would like to think that they’ll hold this back from streaming due to the circumstances.

  4. and hollywood digs ever deeper into its stinking pustulated bag of tricks, desperately trying to revive interest in the very medium they are doing their best to kill off.
    Feels like hollywood is holding a knife to it’s own throat. I for one am cheering it on to finish the job…..

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