Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on rockin’ flatscreen.
When dealing with any list of films, I’ve always made a concerted effort to knock out the longest films on the list as early as I could. So, when Spielberg’s version of West Side Story showed up on Disney Plus, I knew I’d be watching it sooner rather than later; it was the second longest film on the current Oscar list I have. It’s also the fact that I knew this would be a tough watch for me. Ten years ago, I would have told you that that was because I didn’t like musicals. These days, there are plenty that I like. No, the issue is that I don’t love West Side Story as a piece of work because I genuinely dislike the source material.
There’s no getting around that fact. I really dislike Romeo and Juliet as a play and even as a concept. There are those who look at Romeo and Juliet as the height of romance. I look at it as a story where two kids (Romeo is canonically 16; Juliet is all of 13) decide that they can’t live without each other and over the course of a couple of days, a bunch of people die for their rash stupidity. West Side Story is that with a couple of really good songs.
I’m not going to go too deep into the story here. If you know Romeo and Juliet, you have the basics of this because it’s Romeo and Juliet with singing and dancing. If you don’t know Romeo and Juliet, that’s on you. The main difference here is that instead of warring families, it’s warring street gangs in 1950s New York. The Montagues are replaced by The Jets, the gang of white kids who have lived in this particular slum area of New York their whole lives. Instead of the Capulets, we have The Sharks, the Puerto Rican equivalent of the Jets. And instead of Romeo and Juliet, we get instead Tony (Anson Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler). And, aside from the songs, what we get is essentially Romeo and Juliet beat-for-beat with the minor exception of exactly who dies at the end.
There are some things to like about this. Number one is the performance of Mike Faist as Riff (the Mercutio equivalent), who is always the best thing on the screen when he’s on the screen. Faist is all of 30 and already has both a Grammy and a Tony, and if he keeps being this good on screen, he’ll add an Oscar sooner rather than later. The second is Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar in West Side Story in 1961 and is in this as shop owner Valentina. Rita Moreno is absolutely perfect and I love that she’s in this. I hope she lives forever.
The sell for West Side Story isn’t the story, to be frank; it’s the music and the singing and the dancing. There is a great deal of pageantry here for a film that takes place in an urban slum that is, we learn in the opening scenes, about to be torn down and gentrified. In that respect, this is a lot better than its source material. Sure, Romeo and Juliet has the balcony scene (as does this) and teen angst (as does this), but it doesn’t have songs like America, Tonight, Gee Officer Krupke, and I Feel Pretty. As much as I desperately hate the source, the songs are damn good, and there’s a hell of a lot to look at on screen.
So let’s talk about Steven Spielberg. Years ago, when I didn’t like a particular art film, a drive-by commenter told me that I should settle for the cinematic stylings of Spielberg instead. It was a weird insult. Like him or not, aside from a couple of duds, Spielberg’s films tend to be pretty good. The man is a consummate professional, and even when I don’t like his films (I’m looking at you, War Horse), I can’t argue that they’re not damn nice to look at. That’s certainly the case here as well. West Side Story is beautifully filmed. It’s lush and pretty, and looks like a film, which isn’t an insult regardless of what any rando might want to say to try to insult me.
But Best Picture? Best Director? I have to think that the nominations in both cases are more nostalgia than anything else. It’s a fine remake and it’s honestly a fine version of a story I don’t like. But Best Picture? Best Director? We got Spielberg instead of Denis Villeneuve and this instead of The Green Knight?
To be fair, I knew I wasn’t going to love this. I liked it as well as I could, and that’s all I can do. This doesn’t even begin to touch on the questionable, predatory past of Ansel Elgort. I’m really getting tired of having really terrible people in movies that I have to watch for this blog.
Why to watch West Side Story (2021): Pageantry.
Why not to watch: How many times do you really need to watch Romeo and Juliet?