The 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story is one of my favorite movies. I watched it dozens of times as a child; my mother would sing to me “I Feel Pretty,” and my father would hum “Officer Krupke.” The film thus carries for me deep nostalgia and I still know each scene intimately. Now, however, I save the film for special occasions, not wishing to put myself through the intense emotional journey. After all, I cry easily at movies, at the affective force of the screen, at beautiful things, at characters in conflict. And West Side Story, both nostalgic and tragic, is guaranteed to make me sob. So when Spielberg opted to make a new adaptation of the original Broadway musical, I waited to watch until an opportune moment, expecting an avalanche of tears. My eyes were dry the whole runtime.
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of West Side Story is one of the most poorly constructed films in recent history. So what went wrong?
West Side Story (2021) has been yet another casualty in the recent push to make movies grittier and grittier. For those who don’t know, West Side Story is a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in New York City in the 20th century. Just like its predecessor, the narrative is one of horrible tragedy. The lovers, here Tony (Ansel Elgort) and Maria (Rachel Zegler) rather than Romeo and Juliet, are destined for unhappiness. With such serious subject matter, the temptation for severity is understandable. However, the delight of the first movie comes through its cheer, bright colors, stylized and concise dialogue, and exciting choreography. Partly this is the standard of the musical genre — visual spectacles, vaguely presentational, joyous in its lack of realism. The costumes, lighting, and sets of West Side Story (2021) more closely visually reflect a Marvel superhero movie — accompanied with obvious CGI-backgrounds to match.
In his adaptation, Spielberg seems intent on adding realism and context, the two things that the story does not need. After all, this is a story that can only exist outside real life. The classic epic of lovers is a fable, a myth, a retelling. Would Romeo and Juliet be a stronger story if we knew more about their love? If we had all the pieces of their words in plain language to each other, which could never possibly measure up to the beginning monologues? My answer is no.
Take, for example, the moment in which Tony and Maria meet. In the original film, the two lock eyes in a ballroom. Everyone around them fades away as they begin to dance wordlessly together. When they finally speak, it is the slow, measured, stylized dialogue of two people who already know they are deeply in love: “You’re not thinking I’m someone else? / I know you are not. / Or that we’ve met before? / I know we have not. I felt … I knew something never before was gonna happen … had to happen… but this is so much more. / My hands are cold.”
In the 2021 version, Tony and Maria meet in a high school gymnasium behind some bleachers. Put into this context, their melodramatic love suddenly feels strange and impossible. Tony stands to the side, watching girls dance with his hands on his hips, looking gruff. Eventually, his eyes fall on Maria, and he watches her while she dances, not seeing him. Frankly, it’s not so much romantic as it is creepy. After she eventually notices him, they make their way behind the bleachers, where he looks her up and down as she begins to dance around him. He joins her, towering over her. “It’s funny, I wasn’t planning on showing up tonight. / You don’t like dancing? / No. I mean, yeah. I like it. I like it a lot, dancing with you. It’s just, you’re uh…/ You’re tall. / Yeah, I know. You’re not.” There is an ominous discomfort in their awkward flirtations. While this dialogue is a more realistic depiction of the first meeting of two young people, it destroys the central premise of the film: these are two people unbelievably, incredibly in love, a love which transcends all. Instead, we see an uncomfortable interaction which fails to set up the foundation for the tragedy which follows. One of the greatest sacrifices of the 2021 version is in the casting. The most obvious failure is in the lead actor, Ansel Elgort (Tony). Elgort, whose been facing sexual assault and grooming allegations, can barely hold up a scene. I always felt uncomfortable watching him onscreen opposite Zegler, his mouth slightly open, looking down on her.
The success in the first movie comes from its cheery appeal despite the tragic storyline; the sweet innocence of the first half impresses upon us the tragedy of its fall. West Side Story (2021) no longer feels so pretty.